Everything about Werner Herzog’s work is extremely individualistic. As a director he is aggressive, thus his imprint is intrinsic. The world feels fresh and unique in a Werner Herzog film, sand seems as particular to him as it is, in actuality, common. There are few directors who can really make the world seem their own.
His protagonists, fictional or real, are just as individualistic, and Herzog prides himself (modestly, of course) on conveying their personal nature with as much authenticity as possible. He does not pass judgment, and when Herzog finds himself disagreeing with his subjects, he offers his objection as his own opinion, never imposing at as the core of his argument, never overshadowing his character, and never without having first conveyed the core of his characters.
There are no such disagreements in Little Dieter Needs to Fly; here, both filmmaker and subject are in complete accordance. Made in 1997, Little Dieter is a documentary on Dieter Dengler, a German pilot (on the American side) who was shot down over Laos on his first mission in 1965. It’s really a metaphysical film, about how one man’s passion and intensity came to motivate his survival after being taken captive, how hallucinations of his dreams and ancestors led him to freedom. It is a war story that is beyond politics.
Dieter exhibits the same determination as an Aguirre, a Fitzcaraldo, a Timothy Treadwell, though for a change obsession does not destroy the spirit; rather, it keeps the spirit alive in the most horrendous of circumstances: war, capture, torture, and rampant hopelessness. But the dream of flying always kept Dieter on the go, even after he escaped and was lost in the jungles for weeks on end. The dream finds roots in his childhood spent in Germany during WWII, of planes attacking his small town and swooping in front of his window. Already, the contradiction of fascination and horrification is apparent, as is the strength of a passion that overcomes fear.
Dieter’s greatest strength is his dream: to fly again. That a dream can be so determined as to provoke an unceasing optimism is nothing short of inspiring.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.