“Death didn’t want me.”
Werner Herzog began his film career in Germany with several short films in the 1960s before directing his first feature-length film Signs of Life (Lebenszeichen) in 1968. Since that debut, he has steadily expanded his repertoire to include the staging of live opera and the creation of documentaries. Herzog’s approach to documentaries often involves blending realism with staged effects so that determining what is fact and what is fiction can be an interesting exercise in such efforts, as for example, 1992’s Lessons of Darkness which focused on the Kuwaiti oil fields on fire after the Gulf War. In contrast to such films are titles such as Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998) in which there is little evidence of the director imposing his will on the material (although there are a few very minor instances as detailed in the DVD’s accompanying production notes).
Anchor Bay is the source of the recent DVD release of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, one of 12 Herzog titles available from the company.
During the Second World War, the young Dieter Dengler watched as his village was attacked by Allied airplanes. He decided that he wanted to be able to fly himself. After the war was over, at age 18, Dieter moved to the United States and joined the US Air Force but never got close to flying a plane. Eventually, he enlisted in the Navy where he did get flight training and then found himself on the way to Vietnam.
On one of his first flights, he was shot down over Laos and captured. After a forced march to a prisoner of war camp and a period of time there, during which he suffered from torture and near starvation, he escaped and traveled on foot through the jungle. Eventually, he was sighted by a US pilot on a flight mission over the Mekong River and evacuated by helicopter to safety.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a short, gripping documentary that details the extraordinary resilience of the human body and spirit in overcoming incredible hardship and mistreatment. It starts off in a rather low-key fashion as we meet Dieter Dengler in the comfortable house located near San Francisco where he lived in 1997, at the time of filming. Dengler’s childhood and early experiences in America before joining the Air Force are told straightforwardly, with some location shots of Dengler back in his old hometown in Bavaria included. It is when Dengler reaches the part of his story where he has been shot down over Laos that the documentary really begins to mesmerize. Herzog takes Dengler and us to Laos where he has Dengler tied up much as he was when captured over 30 years before. Accompanied by a group of Laotians acting as his captors, we travel through the jungle, retracing Dengler’s steps with him to the site of the prison camp where he was held in abominable conditions with other Allied prisoners. It is amazing and moving to see how affected Dengler is by this experience of returning to the scene of the crime, as it were. The end of the documentary returns us to San Francisco and a reunion between Dengler and the air force pilot who saved his life in the end when he saw him signaling from the shore of the Mekong River. In a moving postscript added last year (perhaps for this DVD release), we learn that Dengler passed away on February 7, 2001 and we see several scenes of his interment at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.
Herzog wisely lets Dengler’s story carry this documentary and avoids imposing any distinctive directorial stamp on the material. He does provide some narration, but most of the time, it’s Dengler who speaks for himself as we proceed through the events of his early life and then his Vietnam experiences. We learn a great deal about Dengler and come to understand that he seems to have come to terms with the past although it’s clear that it continues to have at least a mental impact upon his life. Missing from the documentary is a more rounded picture of Dengler’s life after his return to the U.S. from Vietnam. It’s obvious he’s comfortable in terms of life’s amenities, but we learn nothing about his family situation. Of course, this may have been at Dengler’s request. The interment postscript provides some closure although the relation of most of the mourners to him is unknown as a result.
Anchor Bay’s DVD provides a nice, crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. Aside from a few soft-looking scenes, the image is clean, shows good contrast, deep blacks, and has fine shadow detail. Colours are a little subdued, but appear accurately rendered. The mono sound track is clear and does an adequate job of conveying the dialogue-driven film. There is no subtitling available.
Supplements are restricted to menu-accessible production notes and a Werner Herzog biography. Both are quite detailed as these type of supplements go.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a fine documentary from well-known film-maker Werner Herzog. The subject, Dieter Dengler, is an interesting person with an incredible story to tell. Anchor Bay’s DVD presentation provides a fine image transfer and serviceable sound. Supplementary material is slight, but useful. Recommended.