Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Little Dieter Needs to Fly

(France/UK/Germany, 1997)

Werner Herzog likes to make movies about the extremes of human behavior and endurance. This is a documentary about Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1968 and managed to escape after unbelievable privations. It is narrated by Herzog, and told by Dengler, and it is a truly terrifying tale. Dieter’s life even began badly, in post-war Germany where, at the age of six, he joined other starving kids peeling wallpaper from bombed-out buildings. This paper could then be boiled and eaten, as the wallpaper paste had a little nutritional value. That’s how hungry they all were. When we first see him he is in his wonderful house on Mount Tamalpais, and he shows us the crawl space under it, where he has stored thousands of pounds of flour, corn meal, sugar, honey, and other staples. He realizes he will probably never use it, but he is determined, like Scarlett O’Hara, that he will never be hungry again. He re-enacts parts of his journey through the jungles of Southeast Asia as a prisoner, even though it brings back terrible memories. What is remarkable is how normal he seems, how basically cheerful his outlook on life is. I’m pretty sure a tenth of what he went through would have wrecked me forever, if I had survived it at all, which is very doubtful. Of the seven in his tiny prison camp, only he survived.

Herzog liked this story so much that he fictionalized it and filmed it again a few years later as Rescue Dawn. That was a grueling experience to watch, but I have to say that I think this one, told in his own words, has even more power, though you never see the atrocities so vividly depicted in the second film.