This Werner Herzog doc from 1997 was screened as part 3 of 4 in the series I am putting on at The 602 Club in Appleton, Wisconsin. I chose the film because I watched it in the theater, the Roxie in SF to be precise, when it first came out. One of the descriptions that remained with me for decades was the young Dieter Dengler, in his home town in the Black Forest of Germany, being bombed by American fighter planes. From his window, he and his brother could see clearly the face of the pilot in the aircraft. It was at this moment, that he knew he wanted to fly.
One of the cool things about screening a film with a wide range of people there is the discussion you can have afterward. In fact, people requested a Q and A because “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a heavy film, it is Herzog after all, and folks wanted to decompress —to use an aviation term. Our discussion revolved around psychology: Stockholm Syndrome (i.e. sympathizing with your enemy), PTSD (symptoms like hoarding for fear of starvation) and also truth in documentary. According to Herzog, some stories in Little Dieter are fabricated, like the scene in which Dieter talks about constantly opening and closing doors due to his time as POW. Does this change the certain facts of the story? That he was shot down during the Vietnam War over Laos and then reappeared on the other side of the country, his body ravaged and miraculously spotted by a reconnaissance pilot? No. Dieter’s account of the POW camp, his exact details and reconstruction seem unassailable. But in his own words, he was hallucinating. Ultimately, the point may not be that this or that event exactly occurred. Which is implied in the weight of the word “Documentary”. But that from the many accounts of those who survived to live to tell POW stories and stories from Europe in WWII for that matter, Dieter’s story is utterly believable if not 100 percent accurate. This pairing or Herzog and Dieter, who passed away in 2001 with full military honors and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery, an epilogue to the film tells us, seems complimentary. They are both artists of the poetic and epic story and storytelling. Their point is to illustrate human struggle, suffering, striving, compassion and even humor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
In the end, I was happy I chose “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” as it sparked a personal and thought provoking group discussion. And I think that’s some of the best inspiration that Cinema can offer us.