Directed By: Werner Herzog
Starring: Dieter Dengler, Werner Herzog, Eugene Deatrick
Trivia: This film won the Special Jury Award at the 1997 International Documentary Filmfestival in Amsterdam
Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly tells the story of Dieter Dengler, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who was born in Germany in 1938, and spent the majority of his childhood dealing with the horrors of World War II. One day, as he was watching the bombing of his village by the allies, young Dieter figured out what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: fly! When he was 18, he left Germany for the United States, and soon after joined the Air Force. Before long, he was shipped off to Vietnam, and during one of his first missions, Dengler’s plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner. Forced to march through the jungles of Laos, he was eventually imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp, where he was tortured and nearly starved to death. After some time, he managed to escape his captors, and was rescued by a fellow U.S. pilot.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a gripping documentary about one man’s incredible experiences and how they shaped the rest of his life. Yet, despite the hardships he endured, Dieter Dengler isn’t an angry man; in fact, I’d say the opposite is true. Living in a nice house in San Francisco, he seems quite happy, though some memories still haunt him (after suffering near-starvation in Germany after the war, and again as a prisoner of the Viet-Cong, Dengler now hoards canned and dried food, which he keeps hidden in a secret compartment under the floor of his house). His carefree attitude does fade a bit when Herzog drags him off to Laos to visit the spot where he was first captured. With his hands bound, Dengler reenacts his long march through the jungle, all the while describing exactly what he was feeling at the time. Herzog himself acts as the film’s narrator, yet the majority of Little Dieter Needs to Fly is devoted to Dengler telling his own story, which, needless to say, is positively fascinating.
Dieter’s experiences formed the basis of another Werner Herzog picture, 2006’s Rescue Dawn, a dramatic re-telling of the same events covered in this documentary. But as good a movie as Rescue Dawn is (and it is a good movie), it pales in comparison to hearing Dengler tell the tale himself, in his own words. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is yet another triumph for Herzog, and a film you simply won’t want to miss.