Little Dieter Needs to Fly

(Docu 16mm)

Telluride Film Festival 1997 (World Premiere)–The remarkably heroic story of the imprisonment and escape of Dieter Dengler, a native German who became an American pilot in the Vietnam War, is told with sharp observation powers and witty humor by Werner Herzog, the celebrated German director, in his new documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Though modest in scale and humble in technical values, Dengler's personality is so charismatic and his story so compelling that they easily overcome the film's problems and justify a limited theatrical release in select cities, particularly if Dengler and his eccentric director can tour with the film, for they make a terrifically entertaining team, as was evident at Telluride's world premiere.

Visionary director Herzog is mostly known for his forceful feature films, such as Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, and perhaps best of all, Fitzcarraldo, his most notorious and commercial film. One of the most creative and iconoclastic filmmaker in the international cinema of the last two decades, Herzog himself was the subject of a number of films, including Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (about the making of Fitzcarraldo) and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, works that have helped create and perpetuate his mythic personality.

Since many of Herzog's films have obsessively explored eccentric and deviant individuals (prophets, political demagogues, dwarfs), it makes perfect sense that he'll be attracted to the story of Dieter Dengler, a well-known, well-documented saga in the 1960s that had been largely forgotten since then. Subscribing to the philosophy that “art is truer than life,” Herzog's features and docus have blurred the conventional distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is no exception: a number of significant motifs and visual flourishes were invented by Herzog to promote the emotional effectiveness and entertainment values of the true-life story, without violating the essential facts and their political relevance.

As a young boy, Dengler dreamed of being an American test pilot. He grew up in a defeated, impoverished and depressed post-WWII Germany; he never really knew his father, who was killed in the War. At age 18, he left native Germany for the U.S. with 30 cents in his pocket. Settling in San Francisco, he held various jobs (including peeling potatoes for two years), all along keeping his fantasy alive. Dengler never wanted to go to war or be a war hero; his only motivation was to be able to fly. He finally joined the Navy and began flying during the early years of the Vietnam War. In 1966, on his first combat mission, he was shot down and captured by the Vietcong guerrillas.

Unfolding more or less chronologically, the film is divided into four chapters, titled: The Man, The Dream, Punishment, and Redemption. What makes Little Dieter Needs to Fly particularly engaging–and vastly engrossing–is Dengler's running commentary on his childhood, recalling in vivid detail the first time he saw, but could not afford buying, a sausage. His visual demonstrations of such horrifically violent episodes as his brutal torture in prison, his astonishing escape, and his survival during a lengthy period of time verge on the miraculous and surreal–it's hard to believe that these events actually happened.

Herzog's voice is heard in the narration and in the questions he poses Dengler about his life. While watching the film, there's no way to know what specific elements were inserted by Herzog into the narrative. Indeed, Little Dieter could have used more direct footage about the amiable if also complex interaction between the appealing, open-minded subject and his filmmaker, who consciously decided to add some personal touches, and in the process made the basically non-fiction material a highly personal Herzog movie.

The running time is short, so additional footage about Dengler's life after his escape could be profitably added–if it exists. For instance, Dengler talks about his fiancee when he was mobilized, but her character is dropped (there's no mentioning of the fact that he did marry her). There's also no discussion of his feelings toward becoming an American citizen–his grandfather was anti-Hitler, but his Nazi father was killed in the War. Dengler mentions in passing that upon return to the U.S., he was indoctrinated by the C.I.A. what to tell–and what not to tell–the press. For example, he was instructed not to mention that he was in a Laos camp, because the official government line never acknowledged the American involvement in Laos.

Little Dieter was shot in 16 mm, in German and in English. It's hard to evaluate the film's technical aspects, because what was shown at Telluride was the video version; docu will be blown up to 35 mm in the very near future.


A Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, in association with Cafe Productions Limited for ZDF, as a co-production of ZDF Enterprises and BBC. Produced by Lucki Stipetic. Network executive producer, Wolfgang Ebert. Directed, written by Werner Herzog. Camera (16mm color), Peter Zeitlinger; assistant camera, Erik Sollner; additional photography, Les Blank; editors, Rainer Standke, Glen Scantlebury, Joe Bini; sound, Ekkehart Baumung; re-recording mixer, David Nelson; audio editor, Josh Rosen; continuity, Anja Schmidt-Zannger; production assistant, Rudolph Herzog; assistant director, Herbert Golder. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 29, 1997. Running time: 74 min.

With Dieter Dengler and Werner Herzog.