Werner Herzog’s opening voiceover to Little Dieter Needs to Fly could easily be the ramblings of any of his existentialist war heroes, from Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre madman to Kinski’s Cobra Verde colonialist. Little Dieter Dengler grew up in the Black Forest region of Germany, eating wallpaper and excavating the carcasses of shattered buildings when WWII hit. The planes flew so close to his home he could almost touch them—so close he wanted to be inside them. “Men are often haunted by things in war,” says Herzog of an older Dengler, who recalls here his experiences as a Vietnam prisoner of war. Dengler walks into his home just north of San Francisco, casually losing himself to thought and casually observing the privilege of being able to open and close a door at will. Herzog captures these remarkable moments as if by sheer accident. Dengler’s grueling recollection of life inside a Laos POW camp are the essential building blocks for what Herzog reveals as a perilous, existential conflict between Dengler and his past. Dengler freely admits that he can still hear the voices of his dead friends. Walking through the very forest where he was imprisoned, he details his escape. A staunch individualist (not unlike his anti-Hitler grandfather), a rail-thin Dengler ran though the forest and forged a close friendship with fellow escapee Dwayne Martin. His friend is killed just as a black bear makes a surreal appearance near a raging waterfall. Death did not want Dieter Dengler, whose life often sounds like that of a fairy tale character thrust into an existential wonderland. Herzog’s symphonic use of native chants compliments the evocative use of stock footage from the war.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly is the latest entry in Anchor Bay's Werner Herzog Collection. The digital transfer preserves the director's spare yet startling use of primary colors and hypnotic use of stock footage. From a helicopter, a camera captures a vast, seemingly serene Vietnamese landscape consumed by a hellish cascade of bombs. The disc's crisp audio honors the unshakable intensity of the film's songs and chants.
When a documentary film is as powerful as Little Dieter Needs to Fly, its DVD release can be forgiven for going light on the extras. Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the film is accompanied by production notes and a Werner Herzog bio. The DVD's best feature is a rather unfortunate one-Herzog filmed new footage for his documentary after Dieter Dengler died on February 7, 2001. Dengler was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. Footage from Dengler's funeral appears after the disc's ending credits.
No, Little Dieter Needs to Fly isn’t solely for the Herzog completists. This 1998 documentary is one of the director’s more earnest works. It’s also archetypal Herzog, as Dieter Dengler’s existential struggle in Laos feels like pages ripped from Fitzcarraldo and Herzog’s incomparable Aguirre, Wrath of God.