Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 1 of 100
As a documentarist, Werner Herzog has produced a body of work as striking, challenging and original as any of his feature films. This is the man who used cinema (a visual and aural medium) to explore the world of a blind and deaf woman in 'Land of Silence and Darkness'; who, in 'Grizzly Man', crafted the found footage of an egomaniacal narcissist into something powerful, profound and unsentimental; who made the eccentric, quietly subversive 'Encounters at the End of the World' on the Discovery Channel's dime.
Approaching a Werner Herzog documentary, it's a good idea to put aside any preconceptions of what a documentary is ... or should be. "Cinema verite," Herzog famously declared, "is the truth of accountants." Simply recording events as they happen in front of the camera gives you about as much chance of getting at the truth of something as the doomed penguin in 'Encounters at the End of the World' has of flying to the moon. Although if that penguin did fly to the moon, you can bet Herzog would already be there, as philosophical and unruffled in a space suit as he is mired in the jungle or being shot at during an interview, ready to capture the moment.
Herzog's approach to the documentary form - indeed, to film in general - is to find what he calls "ecstatic truth". There's an example of this not five minutes into 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly', arguably one of Herzog's most compelling documentaries. His subject is German-born American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler. A boy in post-war Germany, haunted and inspired in equal measure by a memory from the war years of an American plane passing so close to his house that for a split second he locked eyes with the man in the cockpit, Dengler emigrated to the US, gained citizenship, joined the air force and was deployed to Vietnam. He had no concept of the geography or the politics of the conflict. He knew nothing - would only realise after harsh circumstances gave him a brutally different perspective - of the sufferings and hostility that were cloaked by the foliage of the jungle.
Dengler's participation in the war lasted for all of one mission. Shot down over Laos, he was captured by the VC. A forced march through the jungle brought him to a prison camp. He slept with his feet locked in place between blocks of wood, his hands shackled to those of the POWs to either side of him. Use of the latrine was a once-a-day luxury. Beaten, emaciated, stricken with dyssentry, men endured their own filth. Their captors evinced ferality but demonstrated an instinctive understanding of how to psychologically demoralise prisoners; break them down; rob them of hope. Dengler, a man for whom the wellspring of optimism evidently never even threatened to run dry, determined to escape. But I'm getting ahead of myself ...
Herzog begins the documentary with the Dieter Dengler of 1997, a Dieter Dengler in late middle age: expressive, affable, a genial host (he opens his doors to Herzog and his crew as if they were old friends) and an interviewer's dream in his candidness and eloquence. Herzog films him driving along an isolated stretch of road in a beautifully preserved 1960s roadster. Dengler pulls up outside of his house, hops out of the car and closes, opens and closes the driver's side door. He does the same thing with the front door to his house. "This may be strange to some people," he says, almost sheepishly, "but to me it's very important, this freedom to be able to open or close a door."
This is the moment of ecstatic truth. As Herzog freely admits in conversation with Paul Cronin, editor of the inspirational Faber film book 'Herzog on Herzog', this was "a scene I created from what he had casually mentioned to me, that after his experiences in the jungle he truly appreciated being able to open a door whenever he wanted to."
And this is where critics of Herzog (yes, such people exist; yes, they're irredeemably lacking in poetry, imagination and a soul) pounce, declaring, "Ah! So he staged that scene. He scripted and directed it. Therefore he is not a documentarist and 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' is compromised and at least in part a work of fiction."
To such people, I would recommend (a) the immediate acquisition of a life; and (b) the relinquishing of cinema in favour of an interest more suited to their mindset. Trainspotting, maybe. Yes, the door-shutting bit in 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' isn't a bona fide, documented, totally and utterly unscripted piece of footage. Yes, it was staged. But check out the next scene: Dengler shows Herzog and the camera crew around his house. Every available square inch of wall space is occupied by a painting or a framed photograph. The paintings have a common theme: each of them depict an open door. This bit isn't scripted or staged. See what Herzog's doing? That's right: he's getting to the truth of the matter.
Here's another way he gets at the truth of the matter. He takes Dengler back to Laos.
How many documentaries have you seen where the main participant appears purely as a talking head? Andrew McDonald's 'Touching the Void' springs to mind. The location footage and re-enactments are breathtaking, but ultimately the film is about mountaineer Joe Simpson and the hard decision he had to make regarding his climbing partner, yet we only ever see Simpson against a black background. The distance between Simpson, narrating his recollections in a studio, and the re-enactment cast and crew braving the elements and getting the shots that make the project viably cinematic is all too pronounced.
At the other end of the scale, how many documentaries have you seen where the subject revisits the scene of an emotional or traumatic event, where the camera keeps rolling as said poor unfortunate, emotionally devasted by the renewed cascade of memories, gets all choked up and turns away as the words fail them and the tears start? It's an easy result, a cheap shortcut to the emotional engagement of the audience.
Herzog doesn't do either of these things. He stops short or goes further, depending on your personal reaction to the film.
For all that Dengler is obviously a raconteur, a man who can effortlessly turn a phrase and bring a description to life - for all that the story he's telling is so dramatic that if the film consisted of Dengler facing the camera for two hours and talking without a single edit or bit of archive footage you'd still listen reverently until he'd got through recounting every last detail - Herzog doesn't desist from really getting to grips with the story; really finding his way into the time and the place and the savagery of it.
Herzog not only has Dengler go back to Laos, he has him -
Shit! I can't discuss why 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' is so maverick a documentary and yet so perfectly Herzog without getting into explicit detail. And if anyone's reading this who hasn't seen 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly', I'd like to think you might want to track down a copy of the film and discover it for yourself without yours truly blurting out the very details that make it so special. Let me just say that Dieter Dengler is the perfect subject for Werner Herzog: he is equally a pragmatist, a poet, a realist and a romantic icon. When he talks about his buddies and his memories, or - in the final sequence - reunites with the pilot who spotted his distress signal and rescued him from VC country, the effect is devastating.
Herzog's documentary has nothing to do with war, troop deployment or US foreign policy. It has to do with the individual. It is essential viewing.