Little Dieter Needs to Fly doesn’t function as a strict documentation of Dieter Dengler, but a loose travelogue, a film that develops the character by giving him room to breathe and explore his emotions. A survivor of a prison camp during the Vietnam War, Dengler is a German-American pilot that revels in his independence, so afraid of being restrained that he adorns his living room with paintings of open doorways, symbols of the personal freedom that alluded him as a detainee in Southeast Asia.
Werner Herzog provides him with a platform to expound upon his feelings and dreams, tangents that avoid the trappings of narrative-based documentaries and mine for a deeper understanding of man’s passion for life and inclination to persevere. His recollections are observed with sensitivity and wonder, reflected in airy visuals and spellbinding montages that elevate one man’s struggle into the poignant and fantastical.
Dieter Dengler knew poverty and fear as a child, living in a destitute section of the Germanic Black Forest that was devastated by the second World War. In order to survive, his mother cooked the wallpaper from their home and fed it to her children, hoping to sustain them on the nutrients trapped in the glue. Memories of hunger hang over his head like a dark cloud and he can only sleep at night knowing that hundreds of pounds of dried goods lie beneath the floorboards of his California home.
Ironically, the war that had left his family impoverished and killed his father also inspired his obsession with flight, a fascination born from the low-flying American fighter jets that laid waste to his idyllic village. Armed with little more than pennies and a survival instinct developed through starvation and a grueling apprenticeship as a blacksmith, Dengler left for America to become a pilot, working his way through college and the Air Force before finding a position in the cockpit by way of the U.S. Navy. Military service meant a career, three square meals and keys to the sky, but Dengler couldn’t come to terms with the barbarity of combat, wrestling with anxiety before each mission over Cambodia at the outset of the Vietnam War. He recalls hovering over the jungle, perplexed by the lay of the land, described by Herzog as “alien and abstract… like a distant, barbaric dream.”
Dengler was shot down during a secret mission over Laos, an experience illustrated as if it occurred outside of time, plumes of heavy fog obscuring his field of vision and radiant light spewing from the plane’s damaged right wing. He awoke moments after the crash on dusty terrain, barely stable enough to retreat into the jungle, surviving for two days in the bush before getting apprehended in a viridescent clearing by Laotian rebels. His captors bound his hands behind his back and made him run through the tropical forest for hours, punishing his attempts at escape by sliding splintered pieces of bamboo beneath the skin of arms and suspending him upside down over a well. His refusal to sign documents condemning American intervention in the Second Indochina War only lead to additional torture, but the memory of his grandfather’s opposition to Hitler sustained him and he continued plotting an escape.
Conditions grew dire when Dieter was turned over to the Viet Cong, a guerilla unit that proved to be more precise, organized and vicious than his Laotian gang of captors. Sharing tight quarters with six other prisoners, Dieter and his fellow inmates were overwhelmed by hunger, dysentery and physical trauma, allowed to stew in a cell of infection and waste and offered rotten meat as their only form of sustenance. Realizing that their days were numbered, Dieter developed a plan to steal the guards’ machine guns during the dinner rush and blast their way out of the camp, a coup that succeeded and sent Dengler and Duane Martin stumbling barefoot into the monsoon-drenched forest. They would never hear from their five co-conspirators again.
Dengler and Martin’s trek from Vietnam to Thailand is unfathomable, finding the pair traversing waterfalls, fighting off leeches and stumbling through thorny patches of thicket with only one tennis shoe as protection from the stoney earth. Dieter still hears echoes of his dead friend’s voice, begging for the shoe as he staggers over the jagged terrain on an infected foot. Dengler eventually had to survive on his own, losing Duane to the machete of a villager that caught him rummaging for food. The isolation proved to be more punishing than the landscape and, at his lowest point, Dengler was left to seek companionship from a bear that patiently awaited his demise.
Dieter’s descriptions of death are breathtaking and he equates the absence of being to the transformative experience of flight and the triumphant nature of his survival. Herzog bathes his visions of eternal rest in surreal imagery, likening his graceful insights to neon jellyfish, floating passively in a translucent tank. The narration is just as hypnotic and poetic as the photography, alternating between Dengler and Herzog and juxtaposing their delicate wordplay over images of war-torn landscapes and stock footage of aerial attack. The bond between the two goes beyond author and subject, striking a fascinating marriage between their attraction to and overwhelming fear of the chaos of the jungle.
Scenes that recreate Dieter’s experiences are the most affecting, finding his attention drifting into memory as the camera captures a mournfulness wash over his face. Early in the film, Herzog asks the humble survivor what it’s like to be considered a hero, to which he exclaims “Only dead people are heroes.” As each experience is relived before the camera, you can see Dieter become overwhelmed by the ghosts of his memories, those dead men metaphorically trapped in the jungle somewhere in his past.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, 1997)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Photographed by Peter Zeitlinger