"As the documentary begins, we hear Werner Herzog's voice telling us that there are events in some people's lives that haunt them forever, but that if we pass these people on the street or in their car, we would never know it, for they appear normal. That in part is what this movie is about. It's also about how a dream might come to us and take hold of us, and how if we are determined to make the dream come true we can never know where it will lead, just as we can never fully understand why the dream came to us in the first place.We first see Dieter in his house atop a hill outside of San Francisco (he has lived in America for 40 years; the film is in English, there are no subtitles). He talks about how important doors are to him, that he can never take them for granted because when he was in the prison camp he was not able to open or close any doors. He talks about always having plenty of food in the house, even storing extra in the basement, because he never wants to go hungry again. Then we are in Germany, in the small town where he grew up. He watched planes flying over his town as a boy during World War II. One flew very close to his upstairs window and from that moment he knew he needed to fly. He says he didn't want to go to war, he only wanted to fly. Yet the airplanes he saw as a child, the ones that created the dream in him, were war planes. This is not a simple story. Dieter came to America when he was 18 years old, with no money, speaking only a few words of English, and almost immediately joined the Air Force. But he never got near an airplane. Over time as he learned how things work, he figured out what he needed to do. He moved to California and went to college, living out of a VW van. Then he joined the Navy where at last he learned to fly. He was sent to Vietnam and soon thereafter was shot down over Laos. To give you some idea of the structure of the film, it is essentially the story of where Dieter's desire to fly led him, told more or less chronologically beginning in his childhood up to the present. We don't learn anything else about Dieter or his life. The story is completely focussed on this one aspect of his life. And Werner Herzog mostly lets Dieter tell his own story. When he talks about his childhood, he is in Germany, talking and showing us around the town. When he talks about his time in the prison camp, the filming takes place in an unnamed Asian country (the production notes at the end say it was indeed Laos). There is some reenactment, such as Dieter having his hands tied behind his back and walking through jungle. This is the sort of thing that could go very wrong in a movie, but in Werner Herzog's hands it works beautifully. It's not clear whether the villagers taking part in the reenactments know what is going on, or what they think. It's not clear whether being there and reexperiencing these events is helping Dieter chase away his demons or making matters worse. All this adds to the dreamlike and mythic quality of the movie. This is a very big story. And what makes the movie so successful, is Dieter himself. He is a master storyteller. At home in San Francisco he is sad and haunted. But in the jungle he is filled with energy and there is a sense of urgency to his speaking, as if he realizes how much he needs to tell his story. I could not take my eyes from the screen and could have listened to him talk for hours. And talk he does. About the three week walk to the prison camp, about conditions in the camp, about their plans to escape. There is great attention to detail, such as showing how they got out of their handcuffs, and showing a map of the camp to describe how their plan was to work. As harrowing as the details of the camp were, even more difficult to hear was the long walk barefoot through the jungle after the escape. Dieter sits cross-legged on the dock of the Mekong River, recounting this journey, quietly but forcefully telling his story. I promise that this will make your heart ache. Don't look for any reflection on the events. Never does Werner Herzog ask Dieter whether he is sorry he pursued his dream with such single-minded determination. We are left to draw our own conclusions. Some of the timing of events is unclear. We're not sure how long he was in Vietnam before he got shot down, nor how long he was held prisoner, but it seems to be less than six months. We're told that he took early retirement from the Navy but we're not told when he retired or whether he continued to serve in Vietnam after he was rescued. But these are not criticisms. This movie is made up of complex levels of dreams within dreams and these slight omissions add to that mood. Herzog has done a brilliant job of putting together an amazing story. This is one of the finest movies I've seen in a long, long time."
One of Herzog's Best, and Herzog is one of the best
Collosus | USA | 06/04/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is simply an astonishing film from Herzog. For those who are familiar with Herzog, he has once again found a character - in this case Dieter Dengler - who becomes more and more fascinating upon closer examination. Herzog's films always have the sense of being impressionistic -- he throws the images up on the screen, and they may not always follow each other in a linear fashion, but they nearly always have a sustained, cumulative effect that, by the end of the film, is deeply emotional and troubling.In this film, the good natured subject starts talking at the beginning and never stops -- Herzog has found someone perhaps even more voluble than he is -- and the audience is perfectly set up by his cheerful good naturedness and lucid observations, because by the end of the film we discover just how unimaginably damaged this person has been by life. The unfolding final images of the film are completely striking in the usual Herzogian sense (if you've seen something like "Lessons of Darkness" you'll have some sense of what to expect), but the meaning is ambiguous: is this a kind of heaven for little boys that love to fly? Or is this a hi-tech graveyard ...Like Herzog's best (e.g. Even Dwarves, Aguirre, Nosferatu, Lessons and My Best Fiend), you simply cannot take your eyes off this movie.Have fun!"
A GREAT HAUNTING MASTERPIECE
C. Cloutier | Monterey, Ca | 03/08/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is one of the most powerful films one will ever see, period.
It is one of Herzog's best and the fact that everything in it is true is all the more inspiring and sad. I have never seen anything like this. It is not a normal documentary because it is relies on the poetry of images, dialogue and music in ways most fictional films can only inspire to. This is not a film to throw on while you putz around the house but one to watch and embrace with open arms. It intrigues, fascinates and if you open your heart just a little, it just may change your view of the world and those in it. Herzog has said that he wants to give the world new images to dream and think about. And in this film, a true story, he finds images of war and death and beauty and transcedence in the most passionate sense. A must see."
Collosus | 05/01/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Director Werner Herzog is obsessed with obsession. Practically all his films feature protagonists in the grip of a passion so powerful that it creates ruin for them and everyone around them. Yet it also creates a sort of tragic grandeur. The viewer feels that, in some strange inexplicable way, it was worth all the pain and suffering involved.Since his falling out with the major movie studios in his native Germany, Herzog has restricted himself to making documentaries (they're a lot cheaper to produce than dramatic films like Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre), but he brings to them the same passionate commitment and haunting poetic sensibility that informed his famous dramas.Here the subject is the German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, a man who, as a little boy, fell in love with flight when he made eye contact with the pilot of an Allied plane that was strafing his Bavarian village in WWII. At the age of 18 he moved to America and eventually became a Navy pilot, only to be shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War. Captured by Laotian guerillas and handed over to North Vietnamese soldiers, he endured unbelievable suffering and made a brilliant, heroic escape from a POW camp. Herzog takes Mr. Dengler back to the jungles of Laos to re-enact his ordeals. All this is intercut with scenes from his comfortable home on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, as well as his quaint little hometown in the Black Forest of Germany. Mr. Dengler is a charming, garrulous raconteur who hardly ever interrupts his fascinating, rapid-fire narration. During those rare moments when he is overcome by emotion and falls silent, it is deeply moving for him and for us. He has clearly suffered much in order to fulfill his dreams of flight. His obsession caused him tremendous pain, but it also saved him. It brings him the only real joy in his otherwise tragic life and gives him a reason to live.Very rarely does a documentary have you on the edge of your seat and move you almost to tears. This one does exactly that. Everyone I have showed this movie to has been moved by it. Once seen, it is never forgotten."
El Lagarto | Sandown, NH | 02/11/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"More than anything else, Werner Herzog is drawn to extremes of passion and intensity, situations where people are pushed to the breaking point. In the unforgettable Fitzcarraldo, he showed us a protagonist so consumed by his vision he seemed capable of anything. (Herzog demonstrated this same quality during the production of that masterpiece.) Grizzly Man introduced us to the demented and delusional Timothy Treadwell, whose "suicide by bear" provided a cautionary tale about hubris and narcissism. Although also a documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly is very different from, and superior to, Grizzly Man. Indeed, the men are almost polar opposites. Treadwell is annoying, insane, and ego-driven. Dengler, by contrast, has achieved something almost inconceivable and yet retains a charming modesty, candor, and matter-of-fact view of himself and his life.
To be fair, LDNTF paints on a much larger canvas than GM. From the ragged end of WWII in Germany, where Dieter first becomes fixated on flight, to the late 60s bombing of Vietnam, Dengler's life is caught up in the sweep of history. He speaks without passion of stripping wallpaper from bombed buildings, boiling it, and eating the glue. Like so many others, at 18 he took his dream to the U.S. and, after much determined hard work, became a citizen, a college graduate, and a Navy pilot. Herzog secured superb documentary footage throughout, which is carefully pieced together with bridges of Dengler speaking. The film flows seamlessly, music is used exceptionally well, and Herzog does not push an agenda - he is simply telling a man's story, or, more properly, letting him tell it.
To say Dengler led an astonishing life doesn't do it justice. His plane was shot down over Laos, miraculously he survived the crash. (On return he would later survive four more!) He was quickly captured and routinely tortured, indeed, torturing him became a sort of party game. Later he was taken to a prison camp where conditions were so deplorable that catching and eating a rat was considered a real luxury. During monsoon season he and some other inmates managed to escape, he alone lived to talk about it. He watched his only companion get decapitated. Ultimately he was rescued. This is the stuff of legend; this is the stuff of superheroes. But Dieter Dengler recounts these mind-boggling events easily, candidly, openly. It is this self-effacing quality that makes Dengler so profoundly interesting, and appealing. Really, when all is said and done, Dengler was a kid that wanted to fly - the idiotic politics and hate that foot the bill for airplanes were irrelevant to him. A stunning film about an unforgettable man."