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.