Dieter Dengler is a garrulous German who now lives outside San Francisco and has an extraordinary story to tell. In fact, his whole life has been a string of incredible events and he is lucky to be alive considering what he has been through. From an early age in his tiny German village, he wanted to be a pilot but didn't get the opportunity in his home country for there was no air force there at that time. Therefore Dieter emigrated to the United States of America, joined their Air Force, and in the mid sixties was sent to the Vietnam War...
How does a man live with experiences that are so traumatic that they could have broken most of us had we been put in that position? That's the unspoken question running through director Werner Herzog's Little Dieter Needs to Fly and as the film progresses you grow fascinated just watching this man behave normally as he relives his life in such a good humoured fashion that it's almost unbelievable that he could have won through such odds and not be completely destroyed by them.
Dengler is an engaging chatterbox, eagerly sharing his stories from the time he was brought up in his village through to the real meat of the film, his time spent as a prisoner of war and his subsequent escape. In his early life he recalls the Allies performing raids on his surely insiginificant hometown, and on seeing the aircraft on the attack he made up his mind that's what he wanted to do. The film is split into four sections, and when he is captured the name of the segment is "Punishment", as if he hadn't been through enough to get to follow his dream.
But his dream, it is implied, was not entirely a wholesome one because it involved him bombing - and slaughtering - people of Vietnam without realising the significance of the action he was taking. He may have been following orders, but perhaps that is why Herzog names the section of Dieter's living hell in the way he does. Dengler is taken back to Laos where he was shot down and captured, and he visits the area where the camp was that he was held - bizarrely, Herzog has him tied up and re-enact various instances of his torturous trials.
All through the film Herzog allows his subject to chat away, whether it's about eating wallpaper as a starving child or building a raft to ride the river down to freedom. Dieter's cheeriness is almost as amazing as his tales, and more you hear the more amazing it is that he is not in a padded cell somewhere. Only once does Herzog show him stop talking for more than twenty seconds and look reflective, near the end when he mentions that the main reason he survived was that Death was the sole friend he had left. Dengler died in 2001, but we can thank Herzog for bringing his story to a wider audience: it's engrossing and moving yet ultimately sobering rather than inspiring. Herzog returned to Dieter's life during wartime in 2006 with his recreation of events, Rescue Dawn.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.