“Little Dieter Needs to Fly” - Werner Herzog (1998)

Because he seems to have a feel for the innate, inner sense of the horrific, Werner Herzog is one of the great masters of the horror genre.  Perhaps for this reason, Herzog is equally masterful in the documentary film arena, where even though employing a more declarative and reportorial style, he also conveys a sense of inner dread.  It is interesting in this respect that the narrative techniques Herzog employs in the two genres are so different.  In his fictive films, Herzog summons an expressionistic nightmare; while in the documentary films, Herzog is relatively thoughtful and reflective.  And yet in each he often evokes an eerie sense of dread.  So it is with Herzog’s even-toned, but still disturbing, documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998). 

Indeed the dual possible ways of telling this fascinating story – fictive narrative and documentary – were certainly evident to Herzog, and he tried them both.  Besides the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog later released a fictive feature on the same subject, Rescue Dawn (2006). 

The subject of this harrowing story is the unbelievable hell that German-American soldier Dieter Dengler went through as a downed pilot and prisoner-of-war during the Vietnam War in 1966.  This story actually starts in Wildberg, Germany, where Dengler was born in 1938 and endured the massive Allied aerial bombing of his city during World War II.  These bombing raids were utterly devastating to the German civilian population, not only killing hundreds of thousands of people but also obliterating the means by which the people could feed and sustain themselves.  During one of these bombing raids, the young Dengler saw from his upstairs window a fighter-bomber approach so closely that he could see the face of the pilot.  This riveting moment stayed in the boy’s memory, and from that point on he felt that “little Dieter needs to fly” — he wanted to become a airplane pilot.  At the age of 18, Dengler sailed to America and soon enlisted in the US Air Force.  He was disappointed, however, that he was not assigned to be a pilot, and instead had to toil away in Air Force machine shops.  After his discharge, however, he studied in college for a couple of years and then enlisted in the US Navy, again hoping to become a pilot.  This time he was successful, and in December 1965 he was part of a aircraft carrier squadron headed for Vietnam, where his hell awaited him.

During an early flying mission in the war, Dengler’s plane was shot down over Laos.  He was extremely lucky to survive the crash, but he was quickly taken prisoner by Pathet Lao guerillas who evidently felt that he might be valuable property and so decided not to kill him.  He was handcuffed and force-marched over three-and-a-half weeks to a Viet Cong prison camp commanded by the North Vietnamese.  All the way along Dengler was starved, beaten and tortured.  At the prison camp, he joined six other emaciated prisoners, four Thais and two Americans, who were only able to survive by stealing and eating dead rats from snakes who had just killed them in their filthy latrine.  Although security in the camp was extremely tight, Dengler knew that he could not survive under the prison camp conditions, so the prisoners plotted their escape.

Incredibly, they managed to stage a daring breakout.  In the ensuing firefight, Dengler and another American prisoner, Duane Martin, managed to escape and head out into the jungle.  But they still had many other horrors to face once they were out.  The two escapees had planned to travel all the way across the width of Laos to the Mekong river and then float down to the mouth, but in fact they didn’t get very far.  After barely avoiding getting swept to death over a steep waterfall of a tributary stream, they tried to beg for some food from a nearby Laotian village. As they knelt down in supplication before the villagers, one of them swung his machete and beheaded Martin, before Dengler scrambled away and barely managed to escape into the jungle again.

Still hiding out, Dengler almost starved to death in the jungle, but very improbably, he was finally seen by an overpassing American aircraft and rescued.  At that point he was suffering from numerous wounds and maladies, and his weight had plunged below 90 pounds, but he was alive.

After returning to safety, Dengler’s successful escape was famous, and he was a celebrated and decorated figure.  He resumed normal life and presumably enjoyed the fruits of the American Dream – he later became a commercial airline pilot, raised a family, and, after retirement, became an independent businessman.

To relate this story, Herzog uses some stock war footage and a few early shots of Dengler, including interviews shortly after his escape; but much of this film has the at-that-point fifty-ish Dengler narrating directly to the camera and telling the story in his own terms.  Probably because Dengler had told his story so many times, he repeats it all quite rapidly and somewhat matter-of-factly – almost as if it were about something of some intellectual interest, but not something so personal to his own survival.  And yet when we hear and reflect on what is being told to us, out mental constructions of what it must have been like are unsettling.  For me, I wanted him to slow his narration down a little bit and somehow digest what he was telling me.  It all seemed too unbearable.  How did he survive it?  What were the odds? Clearly Dengler must have been extraordinarily tough, inventive, and resourceful to have successfully overcome all the unforeseen obstacles that had presented themselves to him.  What marks did it leave on him?  Actually, Dengler was one of only a handful of soldiers ever to escape and survive a Vietnamese POW camp; so we know the odds of survival were minuscule.  How could one go back to a normal life after that?

As with other top documentary filmmakers, Herzog knows that a documentary film can never be an account of objective fact; it will always be a tale colored by the filmmaker’s perspective, too. Thus Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a collaboration on the part of both Dengler and Herzog.  Dengler is giving his account as seen through the interpretive lens of Herzog.  In an apparent effort to provide a more situated account of Dengler’s story, Herzog took him back to the scene in Laos and filmed him talking in front of some of the old settings. He even hires Laotians to schematically reenact the forced march through the jungle, with Dengler’s hands bound behind his back. This adds color to the visual presentation, but it also further contrasts with and implicitly calls attention to the detached manner of Dengler’s telling.  Although Dengler remarks in the film that revisiting those sites and revisiting the feelings of being imprisoned there were disturbing to him, we assume that his relatively calm demeanor must be masking some much darker memories that have been long suppressed.  Or was he someone who had managed to build a wall around himself and his feelings in order to survive?

All of this gives me the feeling that I am witnessing two distinct tellings of the tale at the same time: Dengler’s and Herzog’s.  While Dengler is trying to make it all sound normal, Herzog is trying to evoke the utter abnormality and horror of what the experience must have been. In suggestive fashion of this disturbing psychological undertone, Herzog employs Tuvan throat singers on the sound track.  The Tuvan music seems to have nothing to do with this narrative context in an objective sense, but it does evoke an eerie sense of the underlying rhythm of life that underlies the film.

The final images of the film come from an aerial tracking shot that sweeps over a seemingly endless array of parked military planes, symbolizing man’s relentless industriousness at constructing and deploying machines devoted to his own destruction.  This, too, is a recurring Herzogian theme.

At one point in the film, Dengler tries to explain how he could have so improbably survived this harrowing experience by simply saying, “Death didn’t want me”.  But Death has its insidious ways.  Little Dieter Needs to Fly was released in 1998.  Shortly thereafter Dieter Dengler was diagnosed with the fatal neurological disease ALS.  Faced with another prospect of being (terminally) imprisoned and physically destroyed, but this time with no escape possible, Dieter Dengler took his own life in 2001.  There is no rational accounting for life’s mysteries.

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