Little Dieter Needs To Fly (1998, Werner Herzog)

You hear about “cult films” and films with “a cult following” a lot, but where are these cults? Is there a basement in Des Moines where ten or twelve people get together monthly to watch Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone? Maybe a club in Montreal that meets at a different member’s living room every wednesday night to watch a different Mario Bava movie from one guy’s prize collection of DVDs and bootleg cassettes? An Alejandro Jororowsky society in Mexico City that watches a 16mm print of El Topo once a year followed by a ritual sacrifice of farm animals?

If these movie cults literally exist, I just hope there’s one for Werner Herzog.

“Little” Dieter Dengler was about seven when WWII ended. He lived through the rebuilding of Germany, when people were boiling and eating wallpaper to get the nutrients that were supposed to be in the glue. Later became a blacksmith’s apprentice and worked at a machine shop. Got toughened the hell up by all these experiences and finally left town for the first time ever to head to America and become a pilot at age 18. Joined the air force, worked shit jobs for a few years, then quit to get a college degree, become a citizen and join the navy where he finally started flying, which is all he ever wanted to do. Got sent right away to Vietnam, and first mission he’s shot down and captured over Laos. It gets hairier from there, with deadly escapes and all the adventures that Herzog’s upcoming Rescue Dawn will be recreating. Died in Feb 2001, and there’s a “postscript” scene of his funeral on the DVD.

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Dieter lived an exceptional life, went through very extreme ordeals, and had a single driving obsession (to fly), all making him such an obvious Werner Herzog protagonist that, a decade after shooting this documentary, Herzog is returning to the same story with Rescue Dawn.

Never one to make a “straight” documentary, interviewing Dieter and his war buddies at a neutral location, zooming in slowly on old photos and showing stock footage… no, Herzog does all that, but he also takes Dieter back to Laos. Herzog “helps” Dieter re-enact his own capture and imprisonment with props, locations and some willing Laotian men. What a terrible, wonderful idea. Dieter seems totally up for it, never breaks down into post-trauma sobbing sessions, just reports his history matter-of-factly, with Herzog’s voice occasionally coming in to ask questions or observe in his godlike way.

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(Grizzly Man connection) Dieter: “Duane, my friend, he was gone, and from then on my motions, my progress, became mechanical. In fact, I couldn’t care less if I would live or die. But then later on, there was this bear, this beautiful bear that was following me. It was circling me in fact sometimes. It was gone and I missed it. It was just like a dog, it was just like a pet. Of course I knew this bear was there, he was waiting to eat me. When I think about it, this bear meant death to me. And it is really ironic. That’s the only friend I had at the end, was death.”

But… Herzog: “Dieter took an early retirement from the armed forces and became a civilian test pilot. He survived four more crashes and flies to this day. Death did not want him.”

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Completely awesome movie, short and gripping and moving. I might not join the Herzog cult (they’d never stop talking about the relationship between man and nature, and they probably all have dangerous and bizarre obsessions) but I’ll sure watch more of his films.

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