Flight – the defiance of gravity by humans using various technologies – has always been an ambiguous motif in Werner Herzog’s cinema. It can be an emblem of the pure soul, freed from the mundane humiliations, spiritual violence and dehumanising repetitions of life on the ground. Fini Straubinger remembers the faces of ski-jumpers she used to watch before she became deaf and blind, and is shown enjoying her first trip on an airplane in Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit (Land of Silence and Darkness, 1971) (1). Woodcarver Walter Steiner, tied down by sporting bureaucracy and his own pedantry, soars on skis to a “great ecstasy” that Herzog equates with his own cinema, and its search for “elevated”, “ecstatic truth” (Die Grosse Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner [The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner], 1974) (2). Flight, again like Herzog’s cinema, can take us to sights beyond our blinkered daily lives, such as the helicopter that brings back shots of oil wells burning in Kuwait after the first Gulf War (Lektionen in Finsternis [Lessons of Darkness], 1992). But flight can also be synonymous with death, disability and destruction. Stroszek, disillusioned with America, commits suicide on a ski-lift (Stroszek, 1977). Fini becomes deaf and blind after a childhood fall from a staircase. Flight facilitates neo-colonialism, whether in its “benevolent” form – the provision of medical aid to East Africa (Die fliegenden Ärzte von Ostafrika [The Flying Doctors of East Africa], 1969) – or at its most destructive, as fighter planes glide past the Vietnamese villages, emptying bombs (3).

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

One of these bombers was Dieter Dengler, the lovable hero of one of Herzog’s best-loved films Flucht aus Laos (Little Dieter Needs to Fly, 1997). Or he would have been if his plane hadn’t been shot down over Laos 40 minutes into his maiden mission in 1965. The first of the film’s many ironies is that despite a title suitable for a children’s book about an obsession with flight, and a subject who spends his adult life in airplanes, it narrates a story of being grounded, of an adventure where Dengler is captured, tortured and escapes the Viet Cong, on foot. In any case, flight in Little Dieter is not a source of simple ecstasy. The film ends with a visionary sequence at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, with Dengler walking through a graveyard of obsolete aircraft (the final shot taken, naturally, from the air!). Dengler’s desire to fly has its dark source in watching English bombers blow up his Black Forest village during World War II. Flight may be a release of the soul, but it can also lead to its brutalising: Dengler admits that, as a pilot, he never considered the effect of US bombing raids on the “abstract grid” below (4), but recovered his empathy and humanity when he himself was a prisoner in the villages his colleagues were cheerfully attacking.

Little Dieter has been criticised for not making a direct statement against the war (5). Such sloganeering has never been Herzog’s style; he prefers ironies and ambivalences even if they led some short-sighted critics to read fascist or even neo-Nazi tendencies into his work (6). Nevertheless, despite the recurring negative images of the military in Herzog (7), his representation of Vietnam in Little Dieter seems problematic. Dengler’s heroic narrative of escape and survival depends on opposing the civilised German-American with the wild jungle, and characterising the Viet Cong as sadistic torturers, and Vietnamese villagers as venal. This is hardly an advance on The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) and its like. Dengler re-enacts his capture and torture with extras taken from the film’s location (Thailand, on the Mekong river); they remain silent, literally given no right of reply to Dengler’s endless “rapping” (8). In one scene, where Dengler re-enacts the theft of his engagement ring, and the Viet Cong’s punishment of the thief by chopping off his finger, he has to reassure the wincing extra that “It’s just a movie” in a scene that reeks of well-meaning paternalism.  More tendentious is Dengler’s comparison of his fate – as a combatant of an invading army, the most powerful in the world, laying waste to a sovereign nation and its guerrilla defenders – to that of his anti-Nazi grandfather in 1930s Germany.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Herzog clearly likes, admires and identifies with Dengler (9). In an interview with Paul Cronin he explained how Dengler’s 2001 death left a “great void” in his life, and elsewhere revealed his plans for a fictional version of his story (10) – realised as Rescue Dawn (2006) some years later. But such identification does not mean that Dengler is simply a Herzog substitute, or that Little Dieter treats this stranger-in-a-strange-land uncritically. Though the film is motored by Dengler’s talk, his story is actually mediated throughout the documentary, whose true subject – as so often with Herzog – is not so much Dengler’s adventure as its documentation. Dengler actually recounts his tale at least twice: first in the 1966 press conference following his rescue, and then in the interviews and (often absurd) re-constructions of Little Dieter (11). This latter testimony is “contaminated” by Herzog’s familiar “documentary” strategy of fabricating scenes and statements (12). When Dengler threatens to ramble interminably, Herzog’s voiceover intervenes to get to the point.

Further representations of Dengler’s story (13) include home movie footage of his plane leaving its carrier before being shot down; photographs of an emaciated Dengler taken soon after his rescue; the military and papal honours he subsequently received; and drawings by Juan Santiago of conditions in the Vietnamese prison complex (14). “Official” archive footage of World War II, postwar Germany and Vietnam are balanced by Dengler’s surrealist paintings that condense his experience. These are all different ways of telling and interpreting the same story, and, for Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli, weaken the claims of Dengler’s oral history to univocal truth. In common with many Herzog films, Little Dieter breaks down male confidence and prowess (15).

A final undermining is the number of versions in which Little Dieter Needs to Fly has been released. The film was originally commissioned as part of a German television series, Voyages to Hell. Shot in both German and English, the 80-minute (16:9) cut shown theatrically was reduced by over a third when Little Dieter was screened on German and British television (in the Academy ratio). The 2001 Anchor Bay DVD appends a three-minute postscript showing footage of Dengler’s military funeral. The powerful shock of this footage, however – its stark proof that the man we have been watching brim full of life is now dead – confirms that while Herzog the artist-historian may have had misgivings about the issues raised by Dengler’s narrative, Herzog the man was deeply fond of Little Dieter, a fondness most audiences are likely to share.

Endnotes

  1. The “memory” was actually a fabrication of Herzog’s. See Paul Cronin (ed.), Herzog on Herzog, Faber and Faber, London, 2002, p. 241.
  2. Cronin (ed.), p. 259; Werner Herzog, “The Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema” (1999), reprinted in Cronin (ed.), pp. 301-302.
  3. For a more detailed account of “negative” flight in Herzog’s work, especially the “vertical ascent” of his mountain films and the “theme of the fall”, see Ewa Mazierska and Laura Rascaroli, Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel and the European Road Movie, London and New York, Wallflower Press, 2006, pp. 86-94, 101-102.
  4. Cronin (ed.), p. 267.
  5. Cronin (ed.), p. 267.
  6. Cronin (ed.), p. viii; Mazierska and Rascaroli, p. 82.
  7.   These include the demented war games replayed in the ruined lunatic asylum of Fortress Deutschkreutz (Die beispiellose Verteidigung der Festung Deutschkreutz, 1966), Private Woyzeck’s exercises speeded up as silent comedy (Woyzeck, 1979), and the murderous, failed expedition to El Dorado (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes [Aguirre, Wrath of God], 1972). The prolonged boredom of army life leads to madness and murder in Lebenszeichen (Signs of Life, 1968) and Woyzeck. The US Air Force is linked with urban refuse, traffic jams and uniformed women as one of the modern evils against which anachronistic classical ideals are measured in Herzog’s first film, Herakles (1962). A CIA-backed force of Indian guerrillas uses children in a struggle against the Sandinastas (Ballade vom kleinen Soldaten, 1984). Little Dieter includes Herzog’s very funny commentary on a very silly 1967 US Armed Forces survival training film made soon after Dengler’s adventure. Herzog, like Dengler, grew up in Bavaria, occupied by the US after the war.  See Cronin (ed.), p. 6. Much of Herzog’s work also turns on imprisonment, its effects, and equivocal escape: Fortress Deutschkreuz, Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen (Even Dwarfs Started Small, 1970), Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974), Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979) and Echos aus einem düsteren Reich (Echoes From a Sombre Empire, 1990), an earlier film about returning a former prisoner to his place of captivity.
  8. Herzog called Dieter “the greatest rapper” he ever met. See Cronin (ed.), p. 263.
  9. The links between Little Dieter, its sister film Julianes Sturz in den Dschungel (Wings of Hope, 1999), and Herzog’s biography are discussed in Mazierska and Rascoli, p. 97.
  10. Cronin (ed.), p. 263; Jay Marks and Waylon Wahl, “Werner Herzog”, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, DVD extra, Anchor Bay, 2001.
  11. A third Dengler account, unmentioned in the film, is his 1979 autobiography Escape from Laos (this is also the German title of Little Dieter).
  12. Cronin (ed.), pp. 265-66. Cronin emphasises the complicated nature of Herzog’s nonfiction by repeatedly putting “scare quotes” around the word “documentary” in this volume, even in the filmography.
  13. Mazierska and Rascaroli, p. 98.
  14. The provenance or date of these drawings is not given in the film.
  15. Mazierska and Rascaroli are more severe with Dengler: “for Herzog Dieter was ultimately guilty and his vicissitudes in the jungle were a sort of retribution for the perversity of his dream”. See Mazierska and Rascaroli, p. 103.

Flucht aus Laos/Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997 Germany/Britain/France 80 mins)

Prod Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/ZDF/Arte/BBC/Media Ventures Prod: Lucki Stipetic Dir, Scr: Werner Herzog Phot: Peter Zeitlinger Ed: Joe Bini, Glen Scantlebury, Rainer Standke

About The Author

Darragh O’Donoghue is an archivist at Tate Britain, and has begun a PhD. with the Department of Art, University of Reading.