Since the German New Wave movement, that brought directors such as Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the world’s attention, Werner Herzog has excelled as a contemporary film-maker. Known for his physically ambitious approaches to film, Herzog has repeatedly left his own philosophical mark upon his cinematic work. His documentary work has always interested me in particular and it is here that Herzog’s own voice is always present. It was his more commercially successful documentary Grizzly Man that gave me my first insight into his work, his style and the subjects of life, death and chaos that he constantly chooses to explore. However, it is Little Dieter Needs To Fly that captivated me and left me believing Herzog to be a truly spiritual storyteller and philosopher. It is this story of one man’s traumatic experience of war, horror and torture that summarises Herzog’s methods and messages superbly.
In 1997 Herzog, along with Dieter Dengler – a German pilot who flew for the US in the Vietnam war – ventured into the Vietnamese jungle in order for Dengler to re-live the memories of his time as a prisoner of war. As the director and his subject repeat this physical journey through the jungle, it is the spiritual journey that Dengler is undergoing that Herzog is most keen to capture on film. We, as the audience, take this journey with them and learn of the horror and human suffering that Dengler was exposed to. Herzog involves himself in the story and uses location perfectly to emphasise the pain and terror faced by Dengler. Herzog demonstrates in Little Dieter Needs To Fly that he is a courageous and dedicated film-maker through the way that he accompanies Dengler and takes on the responsibility of supporting him through this personal voyage into his dark past.
Location frequently plays a crucial part in Werner Herzog’s work. In Grizzly Man, Herzog chooses to put himself in danger by visiting the wilderness where the man in question, Timothy Treadwell, was attacked and killed by a bear. Herzog also ventured into the Peruvian rainforest with plane crash survivor Juliane Koepcke in order to study her fight for survival after the crash that killed every other passenger and crew member, in his television documentary Wings of Hope. Herzog’s use of location refers to the memories that can be brought to our attention by returning to certain places of pain and suffering. The Vietnamese jungle provides a perfect backdrop for Herzog to tell Dengler’s story in Little Dieter Needs To Fly.
Dieter Dengler is himself a rather admirable and fascinating individual, as are most of the people Herzog chooses to study in his documentary films. What is most striking about Dieter though is his direct similarity to Werner Herzog. Both men share a similar passion for nature and the exploration of the unknown. Their ‘matter of fact’ approaches to life and death are very closely matched. Whilst Dengler re-lives his story there is never a sign of his fear towards death. Herzog uses Dengler and his story to make his own opinions, about the inevitable advances of death, visible. Little Dieter Needs To Fly is Herzog’s most admirable and articulate documentary due to the use of location, journey and memory. It is through Dieter Dengler’s story of pain and suffering that redemption is felt. Little Dieter Needs To Fly is an uplifting tale about humanity’s ability to overcome horror that leaves you with a new found appreciation for human life, human faith and the human spirit.
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