Werner Herzog’s Dieter Dengler double


This Saturday 8 July, ‘The Wrath and Reveries of Werner Herzog’ continues with a double feature of the filmmaker’s two works on Dieter Dengler: the German-born American air force pilot who was captured as a prisoner during the Vietnam War after being shot down over Laos. Herzog made both the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly 1997 and the feature film Rescue Dawn 2006 about Dengler’s experiences, though both play with the director’s penchant for the ‘ecstatic truth’ rather than pure literality. Both films will screen from archival 35mm film prints.

Herzog first made the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about Dengler’s experiences and his life in the decades after the War. He returns with Dengler to Laos and Thailand to travel through the sites and paths of those momentous months. Little Dieter Needs to Fly is an intimate and powerful documentary portrait of a man changed, but not broken, by his nightmarish experiences.

The story of Dieter and Duane was always one I wanted to tell in a feature film, a tale of friendship and survival. Although ‘Rescue Dawn’ came second, in spirit it really was the first film. ‘Little Dieter’ was strongly influenced by a feature film that hadn’t been made yet.

Werner Herzog

Production still from Rescue Dawn 2006 / Director: Werner Herzog / Image courtesy: Conquistador Entertainment

The director would then return to his subject with Rescue Dawn. Christian Bale gives a commanding performance as Dengler, with Bale’s extreme real-life weight loss for the role lending an air of pain and desperation to Dengler’s struggles within the camp. Herzog takes plenty of liberties with the real story behind the film, but Rescue Dawn manages to put on screen many of the seemingly unimaginable scenarios described in Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Together, the two pieces of cinema play off each other wonderfully – offering a fuller portrait of a man and his painful past.

Robert Hughes is Curatorial Assistant, Australian Cinémathèque
Feature image: 
Production still from Little Dieter Needs to Fly 1997 / Director: Werner Herzog / Image courtesy: Werner Herzog Film GmbH