Though Keith had already mentioned the title of this movie, when I saw the cover I still said, “Oh interesting, little Diet-er Needs to Fly.” In my mind I was already making connections, thinking that this must be about some obese man who loses a ton of weight in order to go paragliding or something. I was wondering how the ever-solemn, ever-intense Werner Herzog would handle such a light and inspiring topic. I was soon to discover–after Keith corrected me saying, “Um, no it’s pronounced Little Deeter”–that this movie ain’t no Jenny Craig walking in the park.
In the first scene, a man, Dieter Dengler, walks into a tattoo parlor to get a tattoo but rejects the sketch because it does not correctly illustrate the vision he had while walking through the jungles of Laos, near-death, as an escaped prisoner. Among other things, he says that the figure in the sketch that is riding the horses coming out of the doors in the sky was not death, but an angel. “Death didn’t want me,” he said to the tattoo parlor guy. Sadly, we do not see the tattoo guy’s expression.
Then Dieter is driving through fog in a buttery yellow convertible. He says when he drives his convertible, he often hears the voices of his dead friends. There is a brief departure from the luxurious car to a trance-like pan of bombs falling on jungle-land and exploding in fire blossoms. Dieter Dengler lives in California in an awesome house with many doors. He has a weird door habit, and also he loves door art. Sort of like the spoon art in The Room. He has paintings of doors in his house, and he has tons of food in case something happens. It comforts him to know that he has a ten gallon bucket of honey. So that is the now Dieter.
Boy Dieter Dengler grew up in Black Forest, Germany. (I can’t help thinking of the super-dooper dark Randall Jarrell poem called “A Hunt in the Black Forest” loosely based on war. So many connections that I won’t get into here.) Herzog’s creepy intense floating-voice explains that people there ate wallpaper because it had nutrients.
Cut to a ballet of fighter planes in the sky in black and white.
Then Dieter, who is back visiting and pointing out what has changed and what has stayed the same since he left, said that when his town was getting bombed, he fell in love with the planes. He saw one pass by his window and was just overwhelmed with how awesome it was. So, when he turned 18, he left his sweet clock-making gig at The Black Forest and took a boat to the U.S. He got in trouble for hiding a bunch of sandwiches and oranges in his shirt, which I thought was pretty awesome, but maybe scary for him. Then he went to school so he could join the Navy and fly planes. Then he joined the Navy to fly planes, but had to peel potatoes for a couple of years first.
Cut to him disrobing a mannequin pilot and talking about his plane crash over Laos. He said he had lost part of his wing, there was a lot of brightness, no time for fear, and that jellyfish are what death looks like, and planes are like broken coffee cups.
At this point in the movie, I was like, what the heck? Molly was pretty unfazed by the whole thing, which was surprising because if you’ve never seen Herzog before it’s sort of a trip. Keith said, “and this is where things get really weird.” They definitely did. Herzog films Dieter back in the jungle where he was captured by the Vietcong after his plane crashed. He has local forest workers tie him up and hold guns near him, even though it doesn’t really look like they know exactly what is going on. Dieter gets a little weirded out being back in that environment, and shows the camera an ingenious way to build a fire, and describes the different torture techniques his captors used on him. “They were always thinking of things to do to me.” But Herzog interjects saying, “Of course, Dieter knew it was only a film.” Really? Did he really understand that it was just Herzog trying to squeeze as much excitement and emotion and story out of this poor guy as possible? (I should mention here that Herzog continued to exploit this story and made a dramatic film called Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale in 2007.) Yeah, I guess Dieter Dengler is aware of what’s going on, but I’m sure a lot of creepy memories flooded back. He says he tried to escape once, but realized he was going to die of thirst. Cut to a picture of a little bog in the jungle and Werner Herzog saying “THE MOMENT HE TRIED TO DRINK THE PUTRID WATER, THEY WERE ALL OVER HIM.” Things were super shitty for Dieter. Like, his friend Dwayne getting decapitated for example, or like getting followed by a bear because the bear thought he was definitely going to die soon, or like, eating rats from the inside of snakes because the snakes were easy to catch after they had gorged themselves, or almost dying because his raft went over a waterfall. That is some messed up stuff. I think maybe instead of a rib-cage door with a chariot of horses coming out, Dieter should have gotten a bear tattoo. The bear, he said, was his only friend, even though it wanted to eat him.
Dieter also tells a story about how once someone in the village where they were staying stole his ring. He was able to communicate this to the Vietcong and they found the guy and cut off his finger. Then he chuckles and embraces some forest worker guy pretending to be a guard and says, “don’t worry, it’s only a film. You’ve still got all your fingers.” Seriously, Herzog? Really?
Dieter also explains how he escaped with his friend Dwayne illustrating what happened on a little map. He also ties up his feet to show Herzog and the camera. There are these long pans of the actor captors just doing their own thing. I did like how Dieter remembers how “they were BBQ-ing all the time.” When he walked around, the soldiers would have this little pot with coals in the bottom and they would catch bugs and stuff and put it on the grill. He said one time he looked and they were grilling a small bird.
We return to the Now Dengler. He is recounting how he was rescued by Deatrick, who is sitting with him at the dinner table. Deatrick was the pilot who doubled back to get him. While they talk, Dieter is cutting a giant Thanksgiving turkey. When he was rescued, Deiter Dengler weighed 85 pounds. When the crew pulled Dieter onto the plane, a snake came out of his shirt. It was a snack he was saving for later. Boy have times changed since that rescue. Dieter has a thing for hiding foot in his clothing. Back at the base, he, understandably, wasn’t able to sleep very well and only felt safe sleeping in the cockpit of planes. The movie ends with Dieter’s continued awe and love of planes even though he almost died as a result of flying. He is walking around some massive airplane parking lot. Oh, and we see a shot of his funeral that Herzog must have tacked on later. The End.