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.
—SPOILERS —Moonlight is a highly stylized indie film that has reached great acclaim and is nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Writer/Director Barry Jenkins. It depicts the life of a person who knows he is gay and must contend with his own personal identity crisis under intense societal and family pressure. The film is told in three acts. It is as much the story of the main protagonist, Chiron, as his friend Kevin, the one person who seems to be in Chiron’s corner. Operative words, seems to be.
As I overheard someone say when we left the theater, it is a character driven story, not a plot driven story. Some people characterize films as either, or. Though I think it’s an easy argument to make, it’s also an oversimplification. Within the three act structure and the passage of time chronologically, Moonlight certainly does have a plot and is driven by a traditional beginning, middle and end. However, the drama within the structure may surprise people. Even though there are drugs and violence spinning and threatening at all times at the periphery, the story is not so much about that but how all of that is interfering with Chiron’s growth and attempt to simply be himself. Chiron’s transformation in Act III is a powerful revelation and the denouement of the film is an intense, honest and moving portrayal of love and friendship. The film did remind me of a short Italian film I saw many moons ago but that stayed with me. That film portrays a child who is constantly bullied. He eats a lot of protein, works out, gets strong. In an alley, the bully is confronted by this seemingly new threat. But once the bully figures out that it’s the same kid he regularly beat up, he proceeds to do it again. Moonlight shares this intrigue on human psychology. What you see on the outside can mislead you about what a person is really like.
I think the film is different in that it deals with youth, gay issues and African-American issues in a sensitive way. As we noted, our last three films, “Live by Night”, “The Founder” and “Gold” were all about white guy protagonists out to conquer the world. Antithetically to those, Moonlight is a film about an African-American on a journey to discover himself.
Possible Spoilers Here – I have been letting this film sink in. And have had more than the typical quick convo with D after the movie. Its been a few days now and I have already recommended it to a few people. This is truly a great movie. Michael Keaton lands every single note in key. The film deals with so many things including psychology, incentive, behavior, marketing, real estate, Realpolitik, history and of course, burgers fries and milkshakes. Full disclosure, I went to Mikey D’s directly before and after I saw this film. I won’t get into deforestation for cattle raising or the Disneyfication of our culture here. Suffice it to say, a McDonald’s opened not so gracefully in the Vatican itself a few weeks ago. Sure the Bishops are denouncing but if you stay up late, who knows, you might see Francis himself sneak in there for some fries at midnight.
The film is about the hubris of a man. And as his empire grows his ethical choices sour. Most relevant, he decides to not be a man of his word following an important deal. He cuts corners on quality. He dumps his wife for no legitimate reason. He enacts revenge when it is not necessary. His business philosophy became, in short, not “Only the Paranoid Survive” but “Only the Ruthless Survive”. Curiously, the lies he told himself became the reality that he became wealthy enough to own and tell others. His own myth maker. A good storyteller. …And posthumously, known as a great philanthropist due to the work of his third wife.
The spin is on, big time, with Ray Kroc. I actually thought he was the founder of McDonald’s. That’s all I ever knew. I had no idea that the “speedy system” belonged to two brother’s from California. That their original burger stand, called McDonald’s, was what Kroc took and transformed into the international behemoth, the good, bad and ugly thing some of us love to hate and some of us… don’t bother us, we are eating our Big Mac. The bottom line is that Ray Kroc envisioned a need, he knew this country would grow in all directions and he wanted there to be a church, Old Glory flying and a the Golden Arches in every town in America. And that you could get that same burger under the same lighting, for essentially the same price — anywhere. This truly horrifies some people, like the McDonald’s bothers when profit came before quality and exalted others, those travelers on lonely roads in the middle of nowhere or people hoping to get a franchise and make the promised land work for them. It’s an amazing and complex story that is well told here, honestly, with powdered milk and all, for you to chew on.
Last night was the 2nd installment of the Werner Herzog Film Series at The 602 Club in Appleton. The event was in reasonable doubt earlier in the week as an unscrupulous individual was hanging on to the Appleton Public Library’s copy of Strosczek way past its due date. But luckily for the L and D, the D was able to get a hold of the title at the Lawrence University Library. He even showed up and gave tips on cooking brats as the L was making pork brats and chorizo. Cheese curds were also served. The menu also included chips, dip, New Glarus and Beaujolais.
A slight technical snafu at the start of the film, namely the Director’s commentary would not turn off, was figured out by one of the guests, who suggested hitting the audio button during playback, which worked! Once that bullet was dodged and as the final stragglers scuttled in we were all able to sit back and enjoy Strosczek. It had been decades since I last saw this film and like our offering last month, Burden of Dreams, this film from 1975 has stood the test of time. It tells the tale of Berliners: Bruno, Eva and their eccentric upstairs neighbor, Scheitz. Scheitz has a nephew in Wisconsin who writes to invite his Uncle to move. Trying times at home and looking to get rich quick in the promised land has the trio flying to NYC, buying a station wagon for $450 and moving onward to Wisco. It’s a touching story, at times extremely humorous, at times heartbreaking, at times absurdist but always compelling and beautiful. Definitely worth watching if you are in the market for a solid foreign film, that also takes place in the United States. …Next month we will follow up this narrative with the documentary “Little Deiter Needs to Fly”. About a boy who grows up in post-war Germany and eventually becomes a pilot for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He is shot down over Laos and becomes a POW.