Germany / UK / USA, 1997
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 14 December 2004
Source Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD
Features: Directors: Werner Herzog
German immigrant, Vietnam veteran, and former P.O.W. Dieter Dengler is the subject of Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. An account of Dengler’s life—from his childhood in a decimated post-war Germany to his experiences in the hands of the Viet Cong—the film presents a compassionate and personal story of the brutality and oddity of war.
In his garrulous voiceover, Dengler narrates his sufferings from torture, disease, and starvation, and intermingled with these are his survival tips: how to light a fire in the jungle, hunt rats, and open a pair of handcuffs with a paperclip. In turn, Herzog hilariously contrasts Dengler’s narration with preposterous Vietnam-era military training films that demonstrate how to catch water in a monsoon or signal a helicopter that is ten feet overhead.
In Dengler, Herzog has found a storyteller as energetic, matter-of-fact, and idiosyncratic as himself. He likens the experience of dying to the movement of jellyfish and has a boundless curiosity about, even an understanding for, his captors and torturers. Perversely enough, Dengler is even willing to reenact his experiences with Vietnamese villagers in locations similar to those in which he was captured.
The film’s tone matches Dengler’s even, spirited voice in its recounting of two of the last century’s major wars, offering parallels between Vietnam and a post-war Germany that “had been transformed into a dreamscape of the surreal.” Both the subject and director of Little Dieter seem to share a compassion for the victims of war, regardless of their nationality or affiliation. Ultimately, the film captures the extreme experience of war in all of its solemn strangeness.