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Little Dieter Needs to Fly

(In German and English) The remarkably heroic story of the imprisonment and escape of Dieter Dengler, a native German who became a U.S. pilot in the Vietnam War, is told with sharp observational powers and wit by Werner Herzog in this new docu. Though pic is 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, particularly if Dengler and his eccentric director can tour with the film; they make a terrifically entertaining team. Since many of Herzog's films have obsessively explored eccentric and deviant individuals, it makes perfect sense that he was drawn to Dengler's story, a well-documented saga of the 1960s that has largely been forgotten. Subscribing to the philosophy that "art is truer than life," Herzog has often blurred the conventional distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" is no exception. Here, Herzog has invented significant motifs and visual flourishes that heighten the true story's emotional effectiveness and entertainment values, without violating the essential facts.

As a young boy, Dengler dreamed of being an American test pilot. He grew up in a defeated, impoverished post-WWII Germany, and never really knew his father, who was killed in the war. At age 18, he left Germany for the U.S. with 30¢ in his pocket. Settling in San Francisco, he held various jobs, all the while keeping alive his fantasy of flying. He joined the Navy and began flying during the early years of the Vietnam War, and on his first combat mission, in 1966, he was shot down and captured by the Vietcong.

Unfolding more or less chronologically, the film is divided into four chapters, titled “The Man,” “The Dream,” “Punishment” and “Redemption.” Dengler’s running commentary on his childhood is particularly engaging, and his demonstrations of such horrifically violent episodes as his brutal torture in prison and his astonishing escape verge on the surreal — it’s hard to believe these events actually happened.

Herzog’s voice is heard in the narration and in the questions he poses Dengler. But there is no way for the viewer to discern which narrative elements are Herzog’s personal touches. Indeed, “Little Dieter” could have used more direct footage about the amiable, if complex, interaction between the appealing, open-minded subject and the filmmaker.

Since the running time is short, additional footage about Dengler’s life after his escape could profitably be added — if it exists. A mention of a fiancee is never followed up, for instance, and there is no discussion of his feelings about becoming an American citizen — his grandfather was anti-Hitler, but his father was a Nazi. Dengler mentions in passing that, in CIA indoctrination upon return to the U.S., he was instructed not to mention that he was in a Laotian camp, because the official government line never acknowledged American involvement in Laos.

“Little Dieter” was shot in 16mm, in German and in English. Video version was screened at Telluride, but docu will be blown up to 35mm in the near future.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

(GERMAN-BRITISH - DOCU - 16mm)

  • Production: A Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, in association with Cafe Prods. for ZDF, of a ZDF Enterprises/BBC co-production. Produced by Lucki Stipetic. Network executive producer, Wolfgang Ebert. Directed, written by Werner Herzog.
  • Crew: Camera (color, 16mm), Peter Zeitlinger; additional photography, Les Blank; editors, Rainer Standke, Glen Scantlebury, Joe Bini; sound, Ekkehart Baumung; assistant director, Herbert Golder. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 29, 1997. Running time: 74 MIN.
  • With: With: Dieter Dengler, Werner Herzog.