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Note: This post may contain spoilers.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) offers a recounting of Dieter Dengler’s harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
Dengler was a German citizen who moved to the United States in order to pursue his dream of learning to fly. His inspiration came from the planes that flew over his village during World War II, but since Germany was grounded after the war, he came to the U.S. and at first joined the Air Force. Not finding the opportunities to fly there, he pursued a college degree, pursued citizenship, joined the Navy, and then got his chance to fly as a pilot in Vietnam.
Dengler conveys all of this background to the camera. It’s clear that he has told his story many times before, as he tells it with such a clarity and eloquence. Werner Herzog allows Dengler to speak at length and usually without interruption through edits or through questions, which is a nice change from the usual documentary interview.
When Dengler’s plane crashes in the jungle, the story turns into the stuff of nightmares. Dengler describes the tortures he experienced, the poor sanitary conditions, and the starvation. He describes his capture while standing in a jungle setting surrounded by men holding guns. These men participate in Dengler’s reliving of certain moments. In one scene they tie him up, and Dengler says, “This feels a little too close to home.”
Dengler himself quickly answers the question of why he would go through this, even though Herzog’s voiceover reassures us that Dengler knows it is only a film. Dengler hopes that going through it again might chase some of the demons away.
As Dengler describes his escape, Herzog inserts and Armed Forces training film from that era. While other archival footage appears throughout in support of Dengler’s recounting, this sequence stands out as different. Dengler and his friend escape, but they face starvation, exposure, leeches, monsoons, and violence from other people. The Armed Forces training film becomes almost a joke in showing how much misinformation exists about engaging in and surviving in jungle warfare. The juxtaposition only reinforces the trauma of Dengler’s escape, during which he saw his friend beheaded. After that, Dengler comments, “The only friend I had in the end was death.” Dengler’s rescue seems nothing short of a miracle, particularly through the description of his rescuer’s Eugene Deatrick sequence of events.
This documentary allows a great teller to tell his traumatic story. In some sequences, Herzog’s voiceover offers additional details or explanations, including insights into what Dengler thought about various situations. At first those kinds of explanations seemed odd, but they possibly reveal details that Dengler himself might not have been able to. Off-camera questions are rare, but an early question of Dengler is quite telling: “What does it mean for you to be a war hero?” Dengler replies that only the dead are heroes.
As with many other of Herzog’s documentaries, Little Dieter needs to fly includes a mix of song genres on the soundtrack. An interesting choice was the Tuva singers, often used in conjunction with the archival footage of the Vietnam War. The singing style comes out of a completely different region of the Asian continent, yet when used in this way the footage feels even more unsettling.
This documentary ends with the postscript of Dengler’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery in 2001, but it makes little mention of the circumstances. I did a little looking around online afterward trying to find cause of death, and a couple sites mentioned Dengler’s being in a wheelchair due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and his taking his own life at the age of 62. Along with that information, the documentary leaves out mention of Dengler’s wives or children, thus firmly grounding us in his passion for flight and his prisoner of war experiences.