Wednesday, January 20, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Posted as part of Operation 101010
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.


Franco Macabro said...

Ive seen my fair share of Herzog films, but Ive never seen any of his documentaries. I think I would find this one interesting because I saw Rescue Dawn a couple of months ago and loved it. Christian bale does an awesome performance! As well as Zahn.

I love how Herzog really gets into the heart of things, he wants a film that takes place in a jungle he goes to it, he needs a raging river, he goes to it.

The story behind this documentary is an awesome one, one of those stories of survival that makes you appreciate your freedom.

I got this one on my list! If your interested, heres my review of Rescue Dawn:

Ed Howard said...

This is definitely an amazing film, one of Herzog's best documentaries. He gets so much out of Dengler, and you can feel a real kinship between the subject and the filmmaker: they're kindred spirits, both determined men with idiosyncratic outlooks on life and death. There are so many wonderful sequences in this film, with probably the best being a relatively simple shot where Dengler sits beneath a bridge in Laos, the sun setting behind him, as he recounts one of the most horrifying parts of his story. I will say, though, that I've always found Herzog's re-enactments with Dengler in this film a little discomfitting; as Dengler says at one point, it all hits "a little too close to home." It's affecting, but at the same time one can't help but think that Herzog is inflicting some very real emotional pain on his subject here.

That said, the documentary as a whole is fantastic, while the fictional remake with Christian Bale is real weak stuff, with all the personality that made the doc so special drained away. Herzog reportedly had a very difficult time shooting the remake, working with a big Hollywood crew who were constantly questioning and undermining his working methods. Maybe such things explain why he's worked so much more often in documentaries in recent years, and why none of his fiction features have really been satisfying since the early 80s.

Film Connoisseur, you should explore Herzog's docs; they're a vital part of his oeuvre and arguably even more important than his fiction features in many ways.

Franco Macabro said...

Hey Ed, just wondering why you thought Rescue Dawn was weak stuff.

I agree it isnt Herzog's best film, but I enjoyed it. I havent seen this documentary, so I dont know how one is different from the other, but I enjoyed the movie.

I thought Bale gave a great performance, it looked to me like Herzog put those Hollywood actors through a real endurance test!

Ed Howard said...

The performances were fine, especially Jeremy Davies doing his usual twitchy neurotic thing, and the jungle images were gorgeous, but otherwise it just seemed so surprisingly generic and formulaic for what I expect out of a Herzog film. Plus, I'd already seen the documentary before the remake, so it really suffered by comparison. The real Dieter Dengler is such a compelling, unusual person that it was disappointing to see Bale's portrayal really drain all the life and energy out of him, making him this stripped-down action hero type. I could see why someone who hadn't seen the doc first would enjoy it, though, since the bare bones of the story itself is so inherently fascinating.

Neil Fulwood said...

Ah, 'Rescue Dawn'. I can appreciate both sides of the argument. Like you, Ed, I saw 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' first and while 'Rescue Dawn' effectively dramatises the nature of Dengler's captivity, escape and eventual rescue, and while the film looks amazing and is littered with great performances (Steve Zahn in particular is a revelation), it doesn't capture Dengler the man.

Bale's characterisation is a solid account of a man determined to survive, but he gets across little of Dengler's irrepressible warmth, charm and expressivity. Of course, it needs to be taken into account that the Dengler of 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' is thirty years older in the documentary, looking back at events, while Bale portrays him as a man in his twenties caught up in them.

I can entirely appreciate Francisco's enjoyment of 'Rescue Dawn': as an example of a studio-funded, mainstream film with an established star in the cast, it's one hell of a piece of filmmaking and, as you say Francisco, you certainly get the impression that Herzog put his cast through their paces.

As a Herzog film - particularly with such distinctive and idiosyncratic feature films as 'Aguirre Wrath of God' and 'Fitzcarraldo' on his CV - it's one of his most ordinary works. I think this is the irony of 'Rescue Dawn'; if it had been made by an American director it would probably been seen as a masterwork.

Aaron said...

You know, I honestly haven't seen a lot of Herzog's work. I'm very familiar with his films but haven't seen many of them. Maybe I should have made it a category on my Operation 101010 challenge instead of "Killer Animals movies". As far as his documentaries, I saw GRIZZLY MAN and I didn't really know what to think of it at the time. It's truly bizarre, that's for sure. I've also seen WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE.

Neil Fulwood said...

'Grizzly Man' would be a good choice for your killer animals category.

Herzog's work is offbeat and idiosyncratic. In terms of his feature films, I'd definitely recommend 'Aguirre Wrath of God', 'Fitzcarraldo', 'Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht' (the opening sequence is brilliantly atmospheric); other films, like 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser', 'Even Dwarfs Started Small' and 'Stroszek' are more difficult, but rewarding.

Herzog's other body of work - his documentaries - is fascinating: in addition to 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' and 'Grizzly Man', 'The White Diamond', 'La Soufriere', 'Lessons of Darkness' and 'Encounters at the End of the World' are all worth seeing.

Aaron said...

Duly noted. I've been wanting to see NOSFERATU: PHANTOM DER NACHT for a long time now and just haven't gotten around to it. I might start with his documentaries because I haven't seen a good documentary in a while. And I never would of thought to include GRIZZLY MAN in the killer animals category... good idea! Have you seen his Loch Ness monster movie? I think he just acted in it, and maybe co-wrote it, I'm not sure. It's ridiculous.

Neil Fulwood said...

I've not see the Loch Ness thing, though I'm curious about it. I don't think it's Herzog directing. Was it meant as a spoof?

Franco Macabro said...

I see what you guys mean, seeing the real guy vs. an actors portrayal of him during his youth was probably a huge contrast.

Neil makes a good point about the difference between Dengler in the movie (during his youth) and Dengler in the documentary. He is probably a changed man, after having lived through all the experiences he did.

I did grasp a bit of naivete in Bales performance. A guy treating others as humans and not as "the enemy" even though he is a soldier. In Rescue Dawn, he gave me the impression of being a humanitarian who only went to war to fly planes. A good guy trapped in the trenches of war. Also, a very resourceful person.

Herzog and Dengler were good friends years before this film was made, and even before the documentary was shot. Maybe Herzog put more into the character we see in the film then what was shown in the documentary.

I do agree, when compared to Fitzcarraldo which was a bitch to film, or to Aguirre...Rescue Dawn pales in comparison.

Either way, I gotta check that doc out!

Aaron said...

Yeah, it's a mockumentary called INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS. Herzog co-wrote and starred in it. It's actually quite funny. Herzog plays himself, of course, and in it he has a fascination with the Loch Ness monster, so he gathers a crew of film-makers to go with him to Loch Ness to search for the creature.

Neil Fulwood said...

I need to see 'Incident at Loch Ness'. I've committed to reviewing 10 documentaries as part of the 101010 project; no reason I shouldn't include a mockumentary as one of them.

Aaron said...

Do it, man. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on it. There's a scene where Herzog is having a dinner party at his house and both Crispin Glover AND Jeff Goldblum show up. I didn't think it was possible for them to be in the same room at the same time... the world should have exploded at that point.