Here I am trying to write about a Herzog film again, despite the knowledge that the written word cannot do his films justice. I’ll take something of a different approach. The story: Dieter Dengler migrated to the United States from Germany, 18 and penniless, hoping for the chance to fulfil his dream of flying. He ended up going to Vietnam and getting shot down on one of his earliest missions; he then suffered torture at the hands of the Viet Cong and bore witness to some truly horrific incidents. He eventually escaped and, after several days hallucinating in the jungle, was rescued by an American pilot.
It’s an extraordinary tale, and as always in a Herzog film, it works on both levels: while we never lose sight of the man’s story and his incredible feat, wider truths are revealed about humans, nature and the universe. Much of the film is simply Dengler telling his story in (roughly) the locations where it happened, and as such is totally mesmerizing – in my opinion even more than if it was re-enacted in full. I love cinema more than anything else, but it has nothing on imagination, and Herzog exploits that exceptionally well, yet he does it in a way that is wonderfully cinematic and beautiful: there are re-enactments of a sort, but they are explicitly ‘just for the movie’ and only involve Dengler being put in similar positions to what he was back then.
There’s one particular scene, akin to the bear attack audio scene in Grizzly Man, where we follow Dengler (with his hands bound) and a collection of Vietnamese running through the jungle. Dengler’s voiceover tells us that if we could see his face, we’d see that he was uncomfortable with the memories the experience was bringing back. But we can’t see his face, so we have to just believe it; fortunately, trust is something you are happy to offer to Werner Herzog, so it isn’t a problem. Scenes like this really does break through being merely a film, they touch the most deeply inherent feelings we have within us. I find it impossible to explain, just as I thought I would, but maybe if you see the film you’ll understand me a little bit.
As always, there are moments of rare beauty, the likes of which can only be found in a Herzog film. One is where they are walking through the forest, and the sunlight streams through the trees above in discrete rays. Another is the final shot, from a helicopter, of Dieter surrounded by hundreds of planes at a massive airfield. My favourite, though, was just after Dieter told the story of the North Vietnamese getting his finger chopped off, he put his arm around the Vietnamese gentleman standing next to him and said gently “Don’t worry, it’s just for a movie.” As he says this, the man looks down and then up at Herzog behind the camera, and half smiles. Herzog’s camera lingers, closing in on the man, then moves past him to another man cooking rice in another part of the hut. It is just fucking beautiful. It filled my heart with warmth, sent several shivers down my spine, and left me totally speechless. There is so much in that one shot, so much ‘ecstatic truth’ as Herzog calls it – I’d go as far as to say it’s one of my favourite moments in movies.
As I suspected, I’ve ended up writing quite a lot about rather a little. Doesn’t matter. If it makes you see it, I’m glad. Herzog is currently making it into a feature film with Christian Bale as Dengler, and while I have no doubt that it will be an excellent film, I question why it is necessary – how could it be any better than (or add something more to) Little Dieter Needs to Fly? Because it is Herzog, I’m more excited than apprehensive about finding out. Oh, and the last paragraph of Ebert’s review is infinitely better than anything I wrote here – it’s truly illuminating.