Thursday, 12 April 2012

Little Dieter Wants to Fly

Little Dieter Wants to Fly - Werner Herzog

Dieter has a story. As a boy he watched fighter planes swoop over his small hometown in Germany. Seeing the pilot in a cockpit almost close enough to touch exploding into and out of his vision was an epiphany for him. He would fly.

Post war Germany is brought to life in a quick sketch - footage of sausages in a window being stared at by passers by accompanies Dieter's memory of seeing a sausage for the first time three years after the war ended - but nobody could afford it. It would have been better than boiled wallpaper though.

To realize his dream of flying Dieter goes to America, storing food under his shirt as his seasickness renders him largely unable to eat during the crossing. This larder will tumble out in customs, something Dieter had no idea he would face. This will be echoed later by a similar event when he is rescued and has some food of a different kind stored in his shirt.

Herzog finds these echoes throughout. The original urge to fly is inspired by attacks on his home town but it is not until he is shot down over Laos in the Vietnam war and is being tortured that he realizes that the missions he flew were the cause of pain and suffering on the ground below. This gives the documentary the depth of fiction, a sense of immanent revelation. Dieter talks about his dreams of death, and how it didn't want him. Surreal images accompany his thoughts, the dreamworld that was post war Germany seems to haunt this film, for both 'star' and director.

The trials of Dieter in the jungle have the quality of a Bosch nightmare. Herzog takes him back to the area and has locals play the roles of his captors but this remains a clear artifice, a zip to open Dieter's emotional memories. And it almost becomes too much. But when you have been tortured, starved and witnessed your friend's beheading at close quarters it is too much.

Dieter seems impassive at times while recounting his story but it is almost as if he has to keep moving, to stay airborne because landing would be too much. His house perches on a hilltop, a wall of glass keeping it free. At times after being rescued he could only sleep in cockpits. High above the ground where memories lay like traps.

Both in it's overall story arc and in the detail of how Dieter survived this is an extraordinary documentary. We see immages of a bear while Dieter tells how a bear followed him, waiting for him to die. They seem to presage Grizzly Man. The bear feels almost like a pet to Dieter. Death incarnate become his only friend.

The music also deserves a mention with Herzog crashing together opera and Tibetan throat singing. Both clash with each other and the footage, sending you rooting for the connections, for the fleeting glimpse of meaning or chaos beneath the surface of these events.


  1. By the way, I am very impressed with myself for resisting the urge to say that this was a rather extreme diet documentary, and should have been called Big Dieter....

  2. This actually means the Werner Herzog did a remake of his own movie? I've seen Rescue Dawn and found it absoutely gross. Incredible what this guy had to endure but he made it.

    1. Hi Caroline - Well I guess he did a documentary and fiction version. Haven't seen Rescue Dawn. I find it hard to see it working as well as a fiction. The distancing effect of watching the documentary helps keep the story from just overwhelming you.

  3. Big Dieter Wants a Fry?

    I love Herzog. One of my favorite directors. I haven't seen this one, but it's definitely on my list.

  4. I saw this several years ago and agree with you that it was "extraordinary." What a wonderful documentary to review! Have you seen Herzog's Rescue Dawn remake? I have it but liked Little Dieter so, so much that I've been unable to bring myself to watch it just yet.

    1. As I mentioned in my comment above to Caroline, I haven't seen Rescue Dawn and I must say I'm kind of with you on fearing it would spoil the effect of the documentary rather than anything else.