Little Dieter Needs to Fly Recounts Harrowing War Experiences

Little Dieter Needs to Fly offers a recounting of Dieter Dengler’s harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

Dengler was a German citizen who moved to the United States in order to pursue his dream of learning to fly. His inspiration came from the planes that flew over his village during World War II, but since Germany was grounded after the war, he came to the U.S. and at first joined the Air Force. Not finding the opportunities to fly there, he pursued a college degree, pursued citizenship, joined the Navy, and then got his chance to fly as a pilot in Vietnam.

Dengler conveys all of this background to the camera. It’s clear that he has told his story many times before, as he tells it with such a clarity and eloquence. Werner Herzog allows Dengler to speak at length and usually without interruption through edits or through questions, which is a nice change from the usual documentary interview.

When Dengler’s plane crashes in the jungle, the story turns into the stuff of nightmares. Dengler describes the tortures he experienced, the poor sanitary conditions, and the starvation. He describes his capture while standing in a jungle setting surrounded by men holding guns. These men participate in Dengler’s reliving of certain moments. In one scene they tie him up, and Dengler says, “This feels a little too close to home.”

Dengler himself quickly answers the question of why he would go through this, even though Herzog’s voiceover reassures us that Dengler knows it is only a film. Dengler hopes that going through it again might chase some of the demons away.

As Dengler describes his escape, Herzog inserts and Armed Forces training film from that era. While other archival footage appears throughout in support of Dengler’s recounting, this sequence stands out as different. Dengler and his friend escape, but they face starvation, exposure, leeches, monsoons, and violence from other people. The Armed Forces training film becomes almost a joke in showing how much misinformation exists about engaging in and surviving in jungle warfare. The juxtaposition only reinforces the trauma of Dengler’s escape, during which he saw his friend beheaded. After that, Dengler comments, “The only friend I had in the end was death.” Dengler’s rescue seems nothing short of a miracle, particularly through the description of his rescuer’s Eugene Deatrick sequence of events.

This documentary allows a great teller to tell his traumatic story. In some sequences, Herzog’s voiceover offers additional details or explanations, including insights into what Dengler thought about various situations. At first those kinds of explanations seemed odd, but they possibly reveal details that Dengler himself might not have been able to. Off-camera questions are rare, but an early question of Dengler is quite telling: “What does it mean for you to be a war hero?” Dengler replies that only the dead are heroes.

As with many other of Herzog’s documentaries, Little Dieter Needs to Fly includes a mix of song genres on the soundtrack. An interesting choice was the Tuva singers, often used in conjunction with the archival footage of the Vietnam War. The singing style comes out of a completely different region of the Asian continent, yet when used in this way the footage feels even more unsettling.

This documentary ends with the postscript of Dengler’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery in 2001, but it makes little mention of the circumstances. I did a little looking around online afterward trying to find cause of death, and a couple sites mentioned Dengler’s being in a wheelchair due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and his taking his own life at the age of 62. Along with that information, the documentary leaves out mention of Dengler’s wives or children, thus firmly grounding us in his passion for flight and his prisoner of war experiences.

A Look into the ‘Land of Silence and Darkness’

Land of Silence and Darkness begins as a portrait of Fini Straubinger, who had been deaf and blind since adolescence. After spending decades in bed, she began to experience life and to help others in the same situation. Central to her awakening was learning about finger spelling, which provides a means of communication for those without sight and hearing.

Directed by Werner Herzog, Land of Silence and Darkness begins in an interesting way. While Straubinger talks, the screen remains black. As she finishes describing, then footage of what she describes appears, including road and ski jumpers. After the ski jumpers, she says, “I wish you could see that.”

Because she lost her hearing later in life, Straubinger is able to speak quite clearly. This documentary allows her to speak at length, recounting her story, describing her perceptions, and talking with others. She expresses some depression over the loss of her hearing and her sight, but she celebrates her birthday with her friends.

This documentary exhibits a great patience with its subjects and their means of communication. Finger spelling takes some time to get information across, and it also requires some translation at times from a hearing individual. In two sequences Straubinger and her friends visit botanical gardens and a zoo, where the experience each place by touching. An extended sequence shows her touching different cacti, with one person talking aloud about the cacti and another person spelling about them into her hand.

While Straubinger’s story is the start of this documentary, the second half of it shows her meeting people who are both deaf and blind. One woman lives in an asylum, and a brother and sister live in a house. Some children deaf-blind from birth receive some education. One 22-year-old never received any education, and a sequence shows him playing with a ball and not engaging with anyone. We never will know what is going on in his head. The most poetic of these sequences shows a man who, according to the voiceover, was rejected by humanity, and he spends several minutes wandering through the yard and exploring a tree. The camera patiently observes him as he explores.

The music in this documentary is occasional light strings, but otherwise spare, while the voiceover is mostly exposition. It sometimes conveys a hint of emotion, but for the most part it relies on information.

Taking Fans Behind the Scenes in ‘Best Worst Movie’

Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009) opens with an extended sequence about the life of affable dentist George Hardy. Everyone likes him, he enjoys his job, and even his ex-wife likes him. Then, right around the five-minute run-time mark, we hear the key question posed to his mother: “What do you think of your son’s performance in Troll 2?”

That perfectly timed question and her laughing reply of, “He’s no Cary Grant,” set up the well-humored documentary directed by Michael Stephenson, the child star who also appeared in Troll 2. At one time Troll 2 carried the infamous distinction of being at the top of the worst list on IMDb. Best Worst Movie explores the phenomenon of the fandom that built up around Troll 2, showing how people have come to enjoy it through repeated viewings, creating video games, engaging in cosplay, and even writing sequels. While Stephenson held a key role in the film, he chooses to give the charismatic Hardy the center stage in this documentary.

In particular this film follows the screening tour and convention appearances of the film and of many of the actors in the film. Stephenson allows them to express their views on the roles they played, to share their reactions upon seeing it, and to update everyone on the current state of their lives. The screening tour amazes the actors, Hardy particularly, and just how much the fans get into the film and the different scenes, and have the fans recite the lines and re-create the scenes as part of the fun. After all, as Hardy’s character says, “You can’t piss on hospitality. I won’t allow it!”

Stephenson also interviews people in the production, including the writer, the composer, and the director. Just as with the actors, they all are surprised at the success of the film with fans despite the strong negative reaction from critics. As the director Claudio Fragasso states, “The incredible thing about Troll 2 is that the public took it back.” He is incredulous at the fans waiting in line and the reception the film receives at the screenings, but later he shows his judgmental side, heckling the actors and commenting on their poor performances. Writer Rossella Drudi shares how she developed the premise for the film because many of her friends became vegetarians at the same time and this made her mad.

As much as Best Worst Movie focuses on the fun of fandom, it does raise the question that some people hesitate to ask: Why do people who appeared in sequel numbers four, five, and six go to the conventions? Even Hardy himself explains how it seems to get old after a while.

Stephenson ends his documentary where it began, with George Hardy and his life in Alabama. While Hardy is willing to act again, he remains grateful for his happy life there.

No Title is Good Enough for a Post about the Awesome ‘American Movie’

Many filmmakers can probably relate to one of the opening scenes in American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999) as Mark Borchart sorts through bills and collection notices. As the amounts add up, he comes across a new credit card and momentarily gets excited about it.

American Movie follows Borchart’s passion project in the making of the short film Coven as a step toward funding and finishing his feature film Northwestern. Borchart is an intelligent visionary with a strong dedication and a decided eloquence but sometimes a lack of focus and definitely a lack of money. He remains undeterred, however, as he continues filming Coven, recording the dialogue, creating the sound and visual effects, editing the final cut, and all the while trying to get enough money together.

Interviews with friends and family reveal Borchart’s lifelong passion not only for film, but specifically for horror film. While they like him as a person for the most part and they respect his passion to a point, they remain skeptical of his plans to finish Coven. One of his brothers raises the question of what makes these films so special, while his father cuts off funding altogether.

American Movie also is a portrait about Borchart himself. We learn about his upbringing, his education, his Army stint, his cemetery job, his children, and his girlfriend. We see him take care of his Uncle Bill. Throughout all of that, of course, is the driving passion to make films and the anxieties about that passion at the same time. At one points he says, “Why, every time they talk about making a film, do they talk about ‘dream?’”

For anyone who has never worked with physical media, American Movie is interesting in that it shows the “old school” process of independent film production, right down to the editing by hand frame by frame.

Overall, American Movie represents Borchardt as a likeable man with admirable dreams who does the best he can to make them happen.

‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ Seeks a Deeper Meaning

Like almost all of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) operates on two levels: in this case the important discovery of the cave and the attempts at finding greater meanings therein.

The important discovery is the Chauvet caves found in France in 1994. These caves featured paintings on the wall that were dated to 32,000 years ago, more than twice as old as any others previously discovered. In the voiceover Herzog himself calls it “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture.”

He builds on this importance in part by bringing us into the filmmaking process, such us how they had to get permission, the limitations they faced on filming, and the processes they had to go through even to get into the cave.

Even with these limitations, however, the film takes us onto a journey into this cave. Along the way several scientists serve as our guides, talking about the features and the significance of the paintings, the bones, and the other formations. One woman, for example, explains the significance of the series of red dots the turn out to be palm prints from a man who had a crooked little finger. Another expert explains the famous panel of the horses, it being labeled “one of the great works of art in the world,” and points out the illusion of movement within what some might consider a very simple painting.

But as always with Herzog there is an underlying larger connection that he is trying to find. In the voiceover he states, “These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams,” reminding us that these paintings were done by people who had motivations and we will never know what those motivations were. They are, as he says, “enigmatic.”

But the answers, not to mention whatever the questions may be, also lead to speaking with other experts outside the caves. He speaks to them about Paleolithic Venuses, flutes, spears, and other artifacts from that era.

But in the end he and his crew are able to return to the cave and do more extensive filming, and here is where the film almost becomes like a rock concert (sorry) in that the cameras provide a front-row view of the images on the walls. I appreciated the sequence the most because no one explained what we were looking at, no voiceover waxed poetic about the significance, and really no one said anything at all. We just got a chance to look.

Werner Herzog Produces Anti-Texting and Driving PSA

Unless you watched the opening credits, you would not recognize From One Second to the Next (2013) as a Werner Herzog film. This short is a public service announcement sponsored by the four major cell phone companies in the United States about the outcomes of texting and driving.

This short features a series of interviews with survivors, family members, police officers, and drivers who caused the accidents because they were texting. One 8-year-old is paralyzed, an Amish family is killed, another woman survives with extensive physical and brain damage, and a daughter tries to come to grips with the loss of her father. Each story drives home the same basic message: Don’t text and drive. Why? Because the message can wait.

Aside from interviews and titles, this short bears none of Herzog’s auteurial signatures: no voiceover, no presence, no speculation, no tangents. The message here is clear and simple, and in many ways that is the point, since the short is part of a larger campaign to get people to stop engaging in what is really a very dangerous activity, not necessarily for you, but definitely for others.

I included this short because it is always interesting how artists engage in various activities in support of their art and how critics sometimes look away from these works as not “true” representations of the director’s work. Yet, directors such as Errol Morris in particular have extensive careers doing advertising, and a recent article interviewed Rory Kennedy about her move into making commercials as well. So because this piece is sponsored, does that preclude it from being part of his oeuvre? Does the fact that it is a public service announcement exclude it from the documentary genre? Just a couple thoughts.

Herzog Delves ‘Into the Abyss’ of Capital Punishment

Into the Abyss (2011) is a look into the capital punishment system in Texas through the case of two teenagers who murdered three people for a car. Of the two teens, one entered a plea and received a lighter sentence, while the other received the death penalty. Into the Abyss is not a race-to-prevent-execution documentary, but more a meditation on the larger question of what execution means.

The opening scene of Into the Abyss sets up the rather difficult question that runs throughout this Investigation Discovery documentary. In that scene, Werner Herzog poses the question: “Why does God allow capital punishment?” The reverend replies, “I don’t know the answer.” Herzog asserts his position against the death penalty early on, but he allows room for others to express myriad viewpoints.

This documentary features some very tough interviews, not only for those giving them but also for us watching them. Probably one of the toughest is with Michael James Perry, the one who received the death penalty and who was scheduled to be executed within eight days. As Herzog and he set up for the interview, Perry is smiling and laughing — not the expected behavior for someone about to die.

A police officer walks us through the different crime scenes and explains how the case started with one victim and expanded to three. His tour is intercut with police video and recent footage of the scenes. As the events of the crime unfold, interviews with those affected bring in the fuller picture, not only about the crimes, but more so about the people involved and the people affected by them. We meet the siblings of the two boys who were killed. We also meet Jason Aaron Burkett, the one who got the lighter sentence, and Burkett’s father, who also is in jail.

Two of the more interesting interviews address the issue of capital punishment specifically. He interviews Fred Allen, a former captain of the death house team. Allen describes the routine that the entire team goes through to take the convicted through his or her final hours. He recalls doing more than 125 executions, but his first female execution finds him realizing he cannot perform his job anymore. He quit, lost his pension, and moved on to other things. Lisa Stolter-Balloun, the daughter of the woman murdered, offers a different take. She attended the execution and felt better after Perry died, but she also states she would have been happy if he had received life without parole.

This documentary reminded me of Herzog’s fascination with the little details and the stories behind them. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, for example, one of the scientists mentions that he was part of the circus, and that led to a small tangent in their interview. We see these again in Into the Abyss, wherein Herzog asks about several tattoos and their significance. The tattoos lead to further revelations about the men who have them.

Unlike some of his other documentaries, Into the Abyss is less abstract and less open-ended in its speculation. Herzog himself appears less frequently than he does in his other films, allowing more time for the extended interviews. I wonder if those changes are because of its inclusion in under Investigation Discovery’s umbrella.

‘Ballad of the Little Soldier’ Tells Stories of the Child Soldiers

Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984) is a German-language documentary short about the situation facing the Miskito Indians in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas. Co-directed by Werner Herzog and journalist Denis Reichle, the documentary focuses primarily on the Miskito people’s stories.

This short balances two parts, though neither is wholly separated from the other. Through interviews with refugees, women, and survivors, we learn of the atrocities they faced as the Sandinistas burned their villages, looted their homes, and attacked and killed their families. One wounded man describes how he was shot multiple times yet managed to survive. Another woman describes how she lost several of her children.

The more shocking part of this documentary is its showing of the child soldiers and their training to fight against the Sandinistas. The documentary opens with a child wearing camouflage, holding a gun, as he plays a cassette tape and sings the song that plays. Intercut shots show some of the other child soldiers as he sings, and as the song ends he smiles.

Further footage shows the children being trained through drilling, firing live ammunition, and launching grenades. There is something disconcerting about such young children feeding ammunition into an automatic rifle as it fires. Even more disturbing are the men training them as they talk about the ideal age for bringing the children in and teaching them how to fight.

Yet the kids gain an opportunity to speak about why they are fighting, and many of them refer to family members who were killed. They assert that they are not afraid.

This documentary is heavy on voiceover in part because it provides contextual information for who these people are, what they have faced, and what motivates them to fight. One rare tangent recalls his own childhood of being drafted at 14 in Berlin to fight against the Russians. Another rare comment is more pointed: “When I see these kids, I can already them dead.”

As a bookend, the documentary ends with a child singing, the song ending, and the child smiling for the camera.

‘My Best Fiend’ or My Favorite Enemy?

My Best Fiend (1999) is Werner Herzog’s tribute to the infamous Klaus Kinski, arguably one of the most difficult actors to work with in cinematic history. While Burden of Dreams somewhat downplays Kinski’s antics, My Best Fiend offers an unflinching look at the man through the eyes of someone who saw him as just that: a man.

My Best Fiend begins with Herzog visiting an apartment that he lived in with his siblings and his mother during the 1950s. For several months Kinski also lived in the building, and through an extended sequence Herzog recounts how Kinski locked himself in a bathroom and destroyed it, how he freaked out about shirts not being ironed right, and other outbursts. One would think that these kind of experiences would deter Herzog from working with Kinski in the future, but instead he went on to survive five feature films with him.

This documentary features mostly Herzog recounting what happened during the shooting of their films together. He expresses frustrations and abuses he, too, faced, at one point even admitting to wanting to fire bomb the man’s house. He intercuts his own experiences with those of others who also worked on the films. One extra recalls how Kinski shot bullets into a hut where others were sleeping and shot off a man’s fingertip, and he also recalls how Kinski hit him in the head but the helmet saved him. Throughout the documentary appears footage to show the recollections as they unfold.

These extreme outbursts from Kinski become the core theme that binds many of these interviews. Fueling these outbursts is a megalomania that Herzog describes in this way: “Mosquitoes were not allowed in his jungle, and neither was rain.” Herzog goes into detail about things that happened on the set of Burden of Dreams, for example explaining how the actor needed to be the center of attention at all times, even when a man had sawed off his own foot save his life after a snakebite.

Herzog also attempts to move away from the theatrics in order to show more the human side of Kinski. Two actresses in particular, Claudia Cardinale and Eva Mattes, recall the actor as more kind, caring, and professional. Mattes in particular recalls how Kinski comforted her when she was upset at the shooting wrapping up.

Scenes from Herzog’s films with Kinski show the actor’s passion and brilliance in his performance. We see a range: He rages in some scenes, while he remains vulnerable in others.

Another way in which Herzog moves away from this fiery character is through the closing shot of the film. In it Kinksi interacts with the butterfly that lands on his face and his fingers, and the actor wordlessly looks at the creature with a sense of calm and wonder.

My Best Fiend offers a deep understanding of Kinski’s brilliance and difficulties along with Herzog’s own frustrations and admiration for him.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

Warner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) is a fun documentary short directed by Les Blank. In this short Herzog makes good on a promise that he made to Errol Morris to eat his shoe if Morris ever finished his film. Morris completed Gates of Heaven, and Herzog dined on shoe leather at its screening.

In what seems typical, Herzog goes the distance in preparing his shoes and consuming them. He stuffs them with onion, garlic, and parsley, and adds them to a large vat and lets them cook for several hours. He even seasons them with hot sauce, and discusses with a chef what to serve along with them.

At the screening, Herzog feasts on his shoes while taking questions from the audience. Blank intercuts scenes from a Charlie Chaplin film with two people also eating their shoes, and throughout he includes a jaunty polka song about old whiskey shoes on the soundtrack.

While the overall tone is light in this short, some serious observations about film and about Morris do come from Herzog. He sees the shoe-eating as a form of encouragement to Morris and as a means to bolster the film’s publicity with the hopes of getting a major to pick it up.

On Gates of Heaven, Herzog comments, “It’s a film of a very mature filmmaker, and I like it very much.” On the value of film the society, he says, “Films might change our perspective of things.” Then he follows with, “But there’s a lot of absurdity as well,” just as this short shows.