It was rainy and chilly in Manhattan this past Saturday, the perfect backdrop for going to see a movie as intense as Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It’s a must for those of you who haven’t seen it. The doc follows Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who was taken prisoner after his plane was shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War. His captors torture him and other prisoners, and when he and a comrade finally escape, they must endure the wrath of the jungle.
As part of a three-week Herzog retrospective, the director himself made an appearance to discuss the making of Dieter and its basis for Rescue Dawn, his upcoming Vietnam War POW drama starring Christian Bale (pictured, right) and Steve Zahn (left). Herzog talked about how difficult it was to get Dieter to be naturally forthcoming with specific details and metaphors Herzog could use to describe the scope of what he went through to survive. In one of the doc’s opening sequences, for example, Dieter walks into his present home and shows us several paintings of open doors adorning his wall. When first asked about their significance, says Herzog, he said that they were cheap, “10 bucks,” and he just liked them. But when pressed further, Dieter noted they represented a luxury he didn’t have while in captivity: being able to open and close a door. “I had to force him into a narrative discipline,” said Herzog, “because it took him 45 minutes to tell a story.”
About a decade ago, EW named Herzog the 35th greatest director of alltime, and not for nothing. He’s a master storyteller (albeit a tadself-involved), which explains why Rescue Dawn has always been foremost in Herzog’s mind. Dawn was a way to use creative license to fill in any of the holes left behind in the documentary. “Rescue Dawnwas meant to go into the deeper core of Dieter Dengler,” says Herzog.In the doc, for instance, one wonders how Dieter (who died five yearsago after a bout with Lou Gehrig’s disease) has carried on all of theseyears with such humility and a great sense of humor with regard to hisVietnam War days. And you never get a sense for what Dieter’s personaldemons might have been at the time. “Little Dieter was alwaysunfinished business,” explains Herzog. “Dieter didn’t want to sayanything negative about the other prisoners… though he admitted thathe could have strangled them had he not been handcuffed.”
The point is, you may have a personal debate of your own: decidingwhether to see the documentary before the feature (a la Stacy Peralta’sDogtown and Z-Boys and Lords of Dogtown) or vice versa. Watching the Dawn trailernow after having seen the doc makes it so much more poignant. I promisemy endorsement won’t provoke the same reaction that one ZDF exec (oneof the film’s financiers) had when he first saw a version of Dieterin the editing room. According to Herzog, he said: “This film is sobad, I need to vomit now.” On second thought, the part about eatingrats to survive might make you nauseated.