Little Dieter Needs to Fly (Widescreen) (Bilingual)
An incredible tale of courage and survival against impossible odds. The man's name is Dieter Dangler. 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.
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To be fair, LDNTF paints on a much larger canvas than GM. From the ragged end of WWII in Germany, where Dieter first becomes fixated on flight, to the late 60s bombing of Vietnam, Dengler's life is caught up in the sweep of history. He speaks without passion of stripping wallpaper from bombed buildings, boiling it, and eating the glue. Like so many others, at 18 he took his dream to the U.S. and, after much determined hard work, became a citizen, a college graduate, and a Navy pilot. Herzog secured superb documentary footage throughout, which is carefully pieced together with bridges of Dengler speaking. The film flows seamlessly, music is used exceptionally well, and Herzog does not push an agenda - he is simply telling a man's story, or, more properly, letting him tell it.
To say Dengler led an astonishing life doesn't do it justice. His plane was shot down over Laos, miraculously he survived the crash. (On return he would later survive four more!) He was quickly captured and routinely tortured, indeed, torturing him became a sort of party game. Later he was taken to a prison camp where conditions were so deplorable that catching and eating a rat was considered a real luxury. During monsoon season he and some other inmates managed to escape, he alone lived to talk about it. He watched his only companion get decapitated. Ultimately he was rescued. This is the stuff of legend; this is the stuff of superheroes. But Dieter Dengler recounts these mind-boggling events easily, candidly, openly. It is this self-effacing quality that makes Dengler so profoundly interesting, and appealing. Really, when all is said and done, Dengler was a kid that wanted to fly - the idiotic politics and hate that foot the bill for airplanes were irrelevant to him. A stunning film about an unforgettable man.
His job is to bomb targets to inhibit the advance of the Viet Cong but he is shot down over Laos and is captured. He is walked from nearly one side of Laos to the other which bordered N. Vietnam and the trek through the jungle itself was near impossible for nearly a month. He arrives at the prison camp and endures another six months near starvation and horrific torture. It is he and another man, who plot an escape for the entire prisoner camp to the minutiae. Soon, it is just he and his friend that survive. Their trek to Cambodia is a living nightmare and he watches helpless as his friend die before him. Eventually, Dieter is spotted by a military pilot and rescued.
This story is nothing short of amazing; his ability to cope in one seemingly hopeless situation after another while starving is nothing short of miraculous. Werner Herzog has him revisit the region and he reenacts his journey with villagers carrying machine guns for realism. It has a powerful effect on both the viewer and Dieter. At times, it is as though you are back there with Dieter in the midst of the horror. The viewer can not help but wonder how he is able to relive the traumatic past and at times you see the deep pain that remains. It is no wonder that he is emotionally disconnected from so much of the world. His PTSD was so severe that buddies would sneak him out of the hospital and put him in a cockpit surrounded by pillows since it was the only place he felt safe. He continued to fly after he recuperated and after he retired from the military continued to work as a civilian pilot.
I’ve watched this documentary twice and each time I marvel at Dieter’s ingenuity and survival instincts. His story is so phenomenal it sounds as though it were fiction. I find his challenges at times overwhelming and sympathize with him for enduring the ghosts that continue to haunt him. He is a courageous man that appears to fail to fully recognize his capacity to survive no matter the seeming insurmountable barriers before him.
And German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, has crafted a film-retelling of Dieter's story that suggests the presence of Dieter's subconscious world of dreams. The documentary looks naturalistic, in that parts of the documentary include authentic film footage from the Vietnam conflict and much of the interview is filmed in the actual jungle setting of Vietnam and Dieter's captivity is re-enacted with real Vietnamese people who play along as his tormentors. But artistically, Herzog's film makes the natural world into an abstract and challenges our perceptions of reality.
The Vietnamese folk music is juxtaposed against images of villages being napalm-bombed. The singing voice, in the context of Dieter's experience that he called an "abstract world" becomes an angry, buzzing sound, as if Dieter's memory and narrative are unable to process his deepest nightmares.
Herzog's film images and sounds are linked organically to the story, but his techniques assert that reality exists below the surface of rational thought. Film images of a hungry bear and a corpse-like dummy pilot become metaphors for death that function as instruments of film poetry. The hungry bear that pursued him, Dieter believed, represented death, which he says, intended to eat him. The U.S. NAVY's archival film footage of the dummy pilot being disassembled, in the context of the story about a pilot who is tortured physically and spiritually, also becomes an abstract of death, a plastic symbol, a corpse-like, hollow, cannibalized pilot.
And the buzzing sound of the Vietnamese folk music returns later when he speaks of his nightmare in which "the entire navy" is looking for him. The buzzing music is juxtaposed with the absurd image of a single canoe, filled with quickly rowing Vietnamese villagers--and he becomes a man tormented in nightmarish isolation. When Dieter explained his rescue, he said the smell of gasoline awakened him to reality. The ethereal substance that produces vapor mirage and napalm death and that awakened him was emitting from the engine of a U.S. spotter plane.
The strange and otherworldly sound of the Asian folksong became the voice of Dieter's inner demons. And the theme of human endurance becomes ambiguous, as Dieter's survival, his triumph, is linked to the misery of nightmares.
At the end of the segment called "Punishment," Dieter reflects on his experience and says, "The only heroes are dead," and also states, "Death did not want me." Dieter said that his experience as an impoverished and suffering German boy in a bombed-out, post-world-war Germany prepared him for suffering, and Herzog opens the film with actual footage of the napalm bombing of Vietnamese villages and suggests that the Vietnamese guns, which swivel and shoot into the sky, are mute in comparison to Dieter's bombs. We wonder whether Dieter believes the torture he endured was deserved and is full of acceptance for his "punishment". Even years later, Dieter's past and present are linked. Night is still a haunting boundary against his daytime reality. His tattoo "dream" of white horses pursuing him is only realized in the Mott Davis Cemetery for aging, decommissioned fighter planes, primed with white paint.
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