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Monday, April 23, 2007

Dieter Dengler

Yesterday my sister told me about a movie she had rented. The film was Little Dieter Needs to Fly, directed and produced by Werner Herzog. It tells the tale of German-American Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran, Dieter Dengler, who grew up in a village in the Black Forest in Germany, and who, perhaps due to some harsh experiences, gained the resolve to be the sole survivor of an escape attempt from a Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos. Soon to be released, btw, is a theatrical version of the same story, also by Herzog - Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale.

I wanted to write about Little Dieter Needs to Fly because it evoked strong feelings from me ... attraction, yes, but even more it disturbed me, disturbed me because I'm so not like Dieter. He went through some very bad childhood experiences, but he didn't go on to become a US citizen, a pilot, and to escape from a prison camp despite them, he did so in part because of them. Bad things happened to him ... he didn't triumph over them, they were not erased, they left him maimed ... but he endeavoured to survive. Why does one person draw the line at bare survival, and lay down and die, while another will not?

Here's part of a review of the movie by Roger Ebert ...


"Men are often haunted," Werner Herzog tells us at the beginning of Little Dieter Needs to Fly. "They seem to be normal, but they are not." His documentary tells the story of such a haunted man .....

The man's name is Dieter Dengler. He was born in the Black Forest of Germany. As a child, he watched his village destroyed by American warplanes, and one flew so close to his attic window that for a split-second he made eye contact with the pilot flashing past. At that moment, Dieter Dengler knew that he needed to fly.

Dengler is now in his 50s, a businessman living in Northern California. He invites us into his home, carefully opening and closing every door over and over again, to be sure he is not locked in. He shows us the stores of rice, flour and honey under his floor. He obsesses about being locked in, about having nothing to eat. He tells us his story.

As an 18-year-old, he came penniless to America. He enlisted in the Navy to learn to fly. He flew missions over Vietnam, but "that there were people down there who suffered, who died--only became clear to me after I was their prisoner." He was shot down, made a prisoner, became one of only seven men to escape from prison camps and survive. He endured tortures by his captors and from nature: dysentery, insect bites, starvation, hallucinations.

Werner Herzog's Little Dieter Needs to Fly lets Dieter tell his own story, which he does in rushed but vivid English, as if fearful there will not be time enough if he doesn't speak fast. As he talks, Herzog puts him in locations: His American home, his German village of Wildberg, and then the same Laotian jungles where he was shot down. Here certain memories are re-enacted: He is handcuffed by villagers, made to march through the forest, and demonstrates how he was staked down at night. "You can't imagine what I'm thinking," he says.

The thing about story-telling is that it creates pictures in our heads. I can "see" what happened to Dieter Dengler as clearly as if it has all been dramatized, and his poetry adds to the images. "As I followed the river, there was this beautiful bear following me," he remembers. "This bear meant death to me. It's really ironic--the only friend I had at the end was death." At another point, standing in front of a giant tank of jellyfish, he says, "This is basically what Death looks like to me," and Herzog's camera moves in on the dreamy floating shapes as we hear the sad theme from "Tristan and Isolde." Now here is an interesting aspect. Dieter Dengler is a real man who really underwent all of those experiences (and won the Medal of Honor, the D.F.C and the Navy Cross because of them). His story is true. But not all of his words are his own. Herzog freely reveals in conversation that he suggested certain images to Dengler. The image of the jellyfish, for example--"that was my idea," Herzog told me. Likewise the opening and shutting of the doors, although not the image of the bear .....

Herzog sees his mission as a filmmaker not to turn himself into a recording machine, but to be a collaborator. He does not simply stand and watch, but arranges and adjusts and subtly enhances, so that the film takes the materials of Dengler's adventure and fashions it into a new thing.

You meet a person who has an amazing story to tell, and you rarely have the time to hear it, or the attention to appreciate it. The attendants in nursing homes sit glued to their Stephen King paperbacks; the old people around them have stories a thousand times scarier to tell. A colorful character dies and the obituaries say countless great stories were told about him--but at the end, did anybody still care to listen? Herzog starts with a balding middle-aged man driving down a country lane in a convertible, and listens, questions and shapes, until the life experience of Dieter Dengler becomes unforgettable. What an astonishing man! we think. But if we were to sit next to him on a plane, we might tell him we had seen his movie, and make a polite comment about it, and go back to our magazine. It takes art to transform someone else's experience into our own.


Nietzsche said that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger and maybe Dieter seems an example of this maxim ... I still believe Nietzsche's wrong.


Blogger cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the tip on the movie. I tend to like Herzog's films. Hadn't heard about this one.

Can't offer any answers on Nietzsche and his quote. You may be more like Dieter than you know, however. It may simply be a question of timing.

3:25 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Will,

Herzog does make interesting movies. I like best Aguirre, the Wrath of God ... I read that Herzog said every gray hair he has is named Kinski :-)

4:42 PM  
Blogger cowboyangel said...

I read that Herzog said every gray hair he has is named Kinski

That's hilarious. Aguirre is my favorite, too. Have you seen the Dream of the Green Ants - that was interesting.

7:21 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Nope, no green ants :-)

Grizzly Man and the White Diamond are two I know of, and Fitzcoraldo. He's really done a lot!

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Dave in Wisconsin said...

This is the first Herzog film I have seen. I thought it was good, but it spoke to me deeply. I cried at the end when he was rescued. I have been in chronic pain for 28 years, and most docs are like the "enemy" in a strange battle. Many of us have given up and died by suicude or other means, like the movie. I am like Dieter, surviving at any cost in any way. If my pain ever ends, I am sure I will feel like Dieter. That's what the film brought to me, more than art. Herzog told one hell of a story about Dieter, one hell of a man who has my greatest respect and admiration. I can only hope for a rescue of sorts as well.

10:15 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Dave, thanks for the comment. I hope things do improve for you.

12:37 AM  

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