Learning to Fly, Dieter Dengler Speaks about Werner
Herzog's latest Doc
by Doug Stone
For someone who spent six months under incredibly brutal conditions as a
POW in Laos during the Vietnam War, Dieter Dengler sure is a nice guy.
And it’s that very amiability that makes Werner Herzog’s transcendent
new documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (now playing at New York’s
Film Forum) such a shock and a pleasure to behold – not only for its
stunning portrayal of a man who has quite literally gone to hell and
returned, but also for its subject’s ability to tell such a story
without a trace of anger or bitterness. It’s a perfect tale for the
infamous German director to present, having long been obsessed with the
plight of men in jungles (e.g. look at “Fitzcaraldo” or “Aguirre, Wrath
As a boy in Germany during WWII, Dengler fell in love with the American
planes that bombed his village into oblivion, and dreamed of flying even
when he was being cruelly beaten by German blacksmiths. Those dreams
brought him to America to enlist in the Navy and after years of
struggle, his dreams came true – only to come crashing down, along with
his bullet-riddled plane, into the Laotian jungle forty minutes into his
first mission. Captured by guerillas and handed over to the Viet Cong,
Dengler endured unbelievable tortures before his escape into the jungle
and finally to freedom — events which are all recalled and some
recreated for Herzog while on location in Thailand.
Anyone that will go into a jungle with Werner Herzog (especially after
escaping from it as a POW before) is a hero in my book, and Dieter
Dengler is a hero in the truest sense of the word. We spoke about the
making of the new film, as well as Dengler’s sometimes difficult new
friendship with the famously unpredictable director.
indieWIRE: How did you and Werner Herzog meet?
Dieter Dengler: He called me at home in San Francisco, and explained to
me very briefly his idea to do a movie about my life. I had never heard
of him before, so I was like “Who the heck is he?”. I said to him, “You
want to talk to me, come on over.” So a couple of weeks later he’s
standing in front of my door with a movie crew, about 8 or 10 people,
with cameras and boxes and all this stuff, and I said “What’s this all
about?” And he said “Well, you said to come on over…” We started to
make the film in German, and Werner said, “Why don’t we make it in
English as well?” But this was difficult, because Werner is hard to work
iW: Why’s that?
Dengler: There’s no script. He would stand behind the camera and do like
this [Dengler hooks his finger into his mouth and bugs his eyes out
crazily]. He’d make all these hand signals, and I’m trying to figure out
what I’m supposed to say, and I said “Werner, I have no clue what you’re
trying to tell me! Why don’t you just put up a sign that tells me what
you want me to say?” And Werner said, “I don’t work like that. I want you
to just say what comes to your mind.”
iW: Were you at all nervous about going to film in the jungle with
Herzog, having heard stories about his and Klaus Kinski’s legendary
battles on movies like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcaraldo”?
Dengler: No, because I knew from the beginning that I had one up on
Werner, because I’m more familiar with the jungle. He likes to act like
he knows all about animals and bugs, but this is my territory.
iW: Kinski wrote of Herzog during the filming of “Aguirre”: “He should
be thrown alive to the crocodiles! An anaconda should strangle him
slowly! Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his
balls!” Did you ever feel like that while making this movie?
Dengler: (laughs) No, no, no. We didn’t have time for that. We were only
there for a few days.
iW: How was it doing the reenactments in the film? [In Thailand, Herzog
filmed Dengler running around in the jungle with his arms bound behind
his back while telling the story of his capture, imprisonment and
Dengler: I saw “Miss Saigon” (the musical) this afternoon, and tears
were running down my face, because it was so real to me – what happened
to the GI’s, and the girls and the children who were left behind, things
I actually witnessed – and that was in a Broadway theater! And so when
we were running around in the jungle for this movie, and I’m all tied up
with four or five Thais following me with rifles, I said, “Jesus, Werner,
this is too close for comfort! I really don’t like this!” And Werner would
say “That’s exactly what I want you to say!” But it was a positive experience.
iW: What was it like seeing the film for the first time with an
Dengler: Oh God, Telluride! Last year I was having dinner with Werner,
and I said “I’ll call you next week.” And he said “I won’t be here.” And
I said, “Where’re you going?” And he said, “Telluride.” I said, “What’s
in Telluride?” He said, “They’re going to show your film.” I said, “MY
FILM?! You don’t even tell me about it?!” He said, “I forgot.” I
couldn’t even get a flight, so I jumped in my little airplane and flew
out there, but I couldn’t get a room and had to sleep in my plane. Next
thing I know 500 people are clapping and asking me questions – which is
the fun part!
iW: Although this film is about your experience as a POW, it’s not
really about the Vietnam war. What are your thoughts on movies about the
war, like “Apocalypse Now” or “Full Metal Jacket”?
Dengler: I try to stay away from those films. It’s a glorification of
something we ought to be ashamed of. I’d rather see a movie like
“Tootsie” and come out laughing!
[Doug Stone is a filmmaker, and singer in the dark polka band,
“Pinataland”. He is also a segment producer for the IFC’s flagship show,
Split Screen” and is currently working on a film about his brother’s
vacation in Vietnam.]