Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Lessons of darkness

with 4 comments

Yesterday night, while browsing through the movies available on Netflix, I stumbled across Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I’d never seen it, so I put it on, and I was immediately entranced—it’s one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen. By now, the story is a familiar one, both through Herzog’s initial treatment of the material and his return to it in the movie Rescue Dawn. Dieter Dengler was born in Germany in 1938, fell in love with the idea of flying, emigrated to the United States to join the Air Force, and was shot down on his first bombing run over Laos. After his capture, torture, and imprisonment, he made a bloody escape, survived a barefoot trek through the jungle and downriver, and was rescued six months after his disappearance. Herzog never forgot the news reports, and in the finished film, which consists almost entirely of Dengler recounting his memories to the camera, he sticks mostly to the facts. Occasionally, he indulges in a heightening touch, as in a scene when Dengler arrives at his house in the Bay Area. As Herzog reveals in his wonderful book A Guide for the Perplexed:

When he gets out of his car, Dieter repeatedly opens and closes the car door before walking to the front door, which he again opens and closes. Eventually he goes inside. This is a scene I created…“Open and close your front door a couple of times,” I said, “then talk about the door as a symbol of freedom.” He hesitated and said, “I’ll look weird to my buddies.” What finally convinced him was when I told him how charming the ladies would think it was.

There are a few other staged moments, and most of them draw attention to themselves, as when Dengler delivers a monologue on death while standing before an aquarium tank of glowing jellyfish. For the most part, he seems happy to indulge Herzog, and we only gradually become aware of the reservoir of emotion and endurance behind his air of guilelessness. We never see Herzog, who speaks only in voiceover, but the film slowly reveals itself as a dialogue with a subject for whom the director feels nothing but respect. Herzog has made a point of cultivating his own mythology, and he more than lives up to it in practice, most famously when he was shot while talking to the BBC and made a point of finishing the interview. But he’s the one who really seems obsessed with jails, locks, and doors. In A Guide to the Perplexed, he tells us: “There is nothing wrong with spending a night in a jail cell if it means getting the shot you need.” A few lines later, he follows it with perhaps my favorite piece of advice for all aspiring artists: “Carry bolt cutters everywhere.” We can only imagine his feelings when confronted with Dengler, who, even in civilian life, is the epitome of the competent man. In his youth, he trained as a tool-and-die maker and a blacksmith, rebuilt church clocks, and willed himself into his dream job as a pilot. (Robert A. Heinlein would have loved him.) In the film, he nonchalantly shows us how to make a fire using two tubes of bamboo and how to escape from handcuffs using a paper clip, noting casually that it’s a skill that might come in handy. When Dengler displays the drums of rice and honey that he keeps under the floor of his house, just in case he needs them, you can sense Herzog nodding in agreement behind the camera.

Yet the film is also a remarkable interrogation of the myth of competence, and the ways in which it seems inseparable from luck, good timing, and even destiny. After years of trying to become a pilot, Dengler was shot down forty minutes into his first mission. In his escape from the camp, seven other prisoners got away, and five were never heard from again. The man with whom he fled, Duane W. Martin, was beheaded by a villager, and Dengler only narrowly escaped. A few weeks later, on the verge of death, he was rescued by the purest chance, when an American pilot happened to see a flash of white at the bend in the river. Only an extraordinary personality would have survived at all, but Dengler had been placed in a situation in which training, intelligence, and endurance were necessary, but not sufficient. There are obvious parallels to the American experience in Vietnam, but Herzog resists them, presumably because he doesn’t find them all that interesting. What intrigues him is the idea of competence pressed to its limits, which Dengler was forced to experience, while Herzog has actively courted it for his entire life. In a profile in The New Yorker that I’ve never forgotten, published before the release of Rescue Dawn, Daniel Zalewski quotes Herzog’s first assistant director Josef Lieck:

I have formed this theory that Werner has, probably from midpuberty, been trying very hard to die a grand, poetic death. Whenever there is anything dangerous, you can be sure he’ll run out to do it first. But I think he will have his grand, poetic death in a different way. I think he will live to be a hundred and five. He’ll have tried all his life to get chopped to pieces or fall from a helicopter, and, in the end, he will die on his pillowcase.

It isn’t clear yet how Herzog will die, a prospect that fills me with more dread than that of any other celebrity. But we know a little about how Dengler passed away. In A Guide for the Perplexed, Herzog only says: “[Dieter] died some years ago of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the first thing the illness took was his power of speech. How scandalous that in his final days he was bereft of words…He died…a few years after Little Dieter Needs to Fly was released, having battled the disease like a warrior.” In fact, he shot himself in front of a fire station, and you can read a lot into Herzog’s unusual reticence. Dengler, a fundamentally gentle man, was repeatedly confronted by the kind of physical and spiritual struggle that Herzog seeks out, and the comparison only makes the director seem more like “a clown,” as he once described himself, particularly in the way in which he drags along his collaborators. (My favorite moment in Zalewski’s profile comes when Herzog dismisses a safety issue in a scene involving Christian Bale, who erupts: “I am not going to feckin’ die for you, Werner!”) It’s been a quarter of a century since Little Dieter was released, but I’m glad that I saw it only now, at a point in my life when I can better understand Herzog’s awe toward his subject:

What I continue to find wondrous is that Dieter emerged from his experiences without so much as a hint of bitterness; he was forever able to bear the misery with great optimism. Dieter had such an impressive and jubilant attitude to life, able to brush his experiences aside and deal with them, never making a fuss. He has been a role model for me, and even today when I am in a complicated situation I ask myself, “What would Dieter do?”

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2018 at 9:09 am

4 Responses

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  1. Two of my very favorite films!


    May 31, 2018 at 10:13 am

  2. This is an amazing piece. Thank you for sharing!

    Gary Trujillo

    May 31, 2018 at 12:23 pm

  3. “Dieter” left my mind busy for days. Even now…


    May 31, 2018 at 9:12 pm

  4. If you like documentaries, I recommend “Chuck Norris vs.Communism”. A very unusual story.


    May 31, 2018 at 9:14 pm

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