Appreciations: Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Features, FILM

A remarkable documentary of soaring human resilience, Little Dieter Needs to Fly lacks one distinguishing feature: its director’s classic lunge into frame. That Werner Herzog is nowhere to be seen in this harrowing tale of survival has prompted some to label it the least ‘Herzogian’ of the German’s non-fiction films—a misnomer given a career’s worth of flirtation in front of the camera, among subjects, and between make-believe and reality. Whether projecting an alternate ego in Klaus Kinski or latter day incarnations such as Timothy Treadwell, Herzog is never far from the limelight—instances of self-parody (Incident at Loch Ness), self-confession (Burden of Dreams), or self-announcement (watch him randomly appear in Wim Wender’s Tokyo-Ga) demonstrate an almost pathological desire to imprint himself on celluloid itself, sometimes going as far as to directly interfere in its un-spooling. But whereas Herzog may have had reason to veto a recording of Treadwell’s mauling in Grizzly Man, or withhold footage of a waterfall’s sacred cavity in The White Diamond, he has too much respect for his subject, Dieter Dengler, to intervene.

While Herzog is clearly there, behind the lens, listening with intent, narrating with his trademark soliloquies (thickly-accented and beautifully worded as always), Dengler is unanimous as the film’s storyteller: a likeable, compelling human being whose recollection of events is vivid yet unfathomable, and described with rarely a pause for breath. Something of an accidental hero, the documentary lifts its title from Dengler’s epiphany as a young boy in war-torn Germany, where memories of fighter planes swooping to bomb his village planted the seed for a lifelong obsession with flying. Ironically, he would realise his dream by emigrating to the United States and joining the military. Shortly after graduating as a Navy pilot, Dengler would be dispatched to Vietnam, and Herzog classically introduces the landscape by evoking the cruel beauty of Lessons of Darkness, relaying the oft-seen—but in his hands, perversely surreal—footage of napalm bombings and air-to-ground attacks. Before Dengler can deliver much in the way of a payload, he is shot down over Laos, captured, and imprisoned by the Pathet Lao. And so begins his journey down the river…

Aside from the occasional throwaway anecdote—how to start a fire, catch a rodent, and jimmy a pair of handcuffs are just some of the survivalist techniques taught—Dengler’s account of his ordeal never ceases to amaze, in part because of Herzog’s self-control. Rather than impose himself as a mediator between subject and film, Herzog simply allows Dengler to talk. And talk he does: about the torture, the dysentery, the self-defecation, the threshold of insanity and despair. It’s a memoir told with pathos and visible emotion, and at other times with cool detachment, much like the captive résistance hero in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped—all of which is coaxed to the surface by Herzog’s decision to escort Dengler back to the sites of his trauma as a prisoner of war. For effect, Herzog also hires local Thai men as stand-ins for Dengler’s captors, and there’s a point in the film, as they usher him through the jungle at gunpoint, where it becomes all too real for the ex-pat German. Herzog stops short of indulging in fully-fledged re-enactments—for a filmmaker whose propensity to merge fiction and reality goes without saying, it seems rather against his nature to do so—but the documentary is all the better for it. Any urge of Herzog’s to deliver ‘escapism’ we now know was suppressed and saved in bulk for Rescue Dawn, a dramatisation of Dengler’s flight to freedom starring Christian Bale. Never one to go unnoticed, however, Herzog permits himself to one moment of rousing cinematic transcendence that ends Little Dieter Needs to Fly on a triumphant high only movies are capable of: an astonishing sky-bound tracking shot that begins on Dengler, and pans away to reveal a field of aviation dreams.

Dir. Werner Herzog
France/UK/Germany, 1997; 80 minutes