[Editor’s note: This interview with Werner Herzog regarding Little Dieter Needs to Fly occurred in 1998 at the time of the film’s initial release at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco and was published with the accompanying introduction in the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper.]
Werner Herzog is one of few filmmakers who possess an aura. Not tabloid longevity, but the true beatification that comes with being a small-town Bavarian who ended up surviving not only postwar Germany but Central African prisons, Peruvian arrows, Klaus Kinski, pilgrimages across Europe and forty years in the film industry. His struggles are sometimes self-imposed but always Promethean; his vision, personal, strange and poetic. His fans can only be described as devotional, readily quoting their favorite lines as if they were pulling out an amulet given to them by the Virgin herself. Herzog doesn’t do much to discourage the following, dropping his visual koans on audiences every couple of years or so, along with another harrowing story of how that feature came to screen. Which is why Herzog, I and his assistant director, Herbert Golder, were laughing when we read the fortune opened by the holy man at a restaurant not far from Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope building, where Herzog was doing some work. “A modest man never talks of himself,” it said. It was already too late.
Here in San Francisco, March, 1998, however, Werner Herzog actually seems to want to avoid that topic. Asked to film some of his own experiences as a director for the (how very) German TV series Voyages to Hell, Herzog declined. (The producers were interested in his harrowing half-decade-in-the-making Fitzcarraldo moments, but Herzog said he told them that was only difficult work, not a voyage to hell.) “No, I’m not going to circle around my naval,” he recalls saying. Just as the man was giving up on him and walking out, Herzog called out to him, “Wait a minute, I have some stories to propose.”
So we and the Germans did not get Werner Herzog’s own ride through any River of Death, but something close to it: Dieter Dengler and his POW survival story, previously seen in a smaller-scale Germany TV version, now in the made-for-cinema version called Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
Like the heroic foundling, would-be Nietzschean ignobles and beautiful/deadly landscapes of Herzog’s oeuvre, Dieter is a protagonist who comes to us as a paradox, a man who on the surface lives a comfortable sub-urban life on Mount Tamalpais, in Marin County, California. Except that he has 1,000 pounds of wheat and rice in his basement. Just in case.
It’s revealed that Dieter was a prisoner of war in Laos. Just forty minutes into his flight over the country in 1966, he was shot down, then captured by Vietcong. He was also a survivor of another war; he grew up in the decimated landscape of post-WWII Germany, where his mother boiled down wallpaper and served it to them because, as he remembers her saying, “there was nutrition in the glue.” But Dieter, as the story goes, had a dream. Ever since a WWII airplane crashed through the window of his home as a child, he wanted to get in a plane and fly.
Werner Herzog’s 1974 version of Kaspar Hauser turned the German legend intio a character who took his own dreams to be reality and took reality to be a dream. Dieter Dengler, inheriting his obsession from one of his greater traumas, is not far from that level of perception, and maybe Herzog himself isn’t either. He’s said he despises the term “cinéma vérité” because truth doesn’t necessarily reveal itself through the literal. “We should be careful of talking about truth neither as philosophers or mathematicians,” he said. “We should handle it gently, but as a filmmaker or poet, I can say, yes, in poetry there’s a deep inherent truth, and you can discover it only by fabrication, only with your imagination. And that brings it very, very close to feature films. So Fitzcarraldo, for example, is one of my best documentaries, according to my definition.”
By the same definition, Little Dieter Needs to Fly may be one of his most personal fictional creations. Like Dieter’s, Herzog’s youth was spent wading through rubble and working-class jobs in a small town in postwar Germany. “You are sitting in front of a man who didn’t use a phone until he was seventeen,” he told me. “Both of us know what it means to be in freedom. Both of us know what it means to be hungry, really hungry. Both of us grew up in very remote areas of Germany. I had never seen TV or film or anything until I was grown up. I learned self-reliance. And this is why Dieter and I have such a direct rapport.”
Herzog had known of Dieter Dengler’s story since the sixties, when he was featured in six consecutive issues of a German magazine. He was most obviously a voyage to hell, but Herzog has conceived it as a Greek tragedy: hubris and the fall, with an uneasy redemption tacked on the end. And while Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and its Coppola cousin Apocalypse Now are packaged together as anti-imperialism manifestos from the Vietnam era in some parts, Little Dieter was not meant to make a statement about the American war in Vietnam. Brought to the screen via North Vietnamese propaganda footage showing American bombs wreaking fire and death in Apocalypse Now kind of color, that war, Herzog claimed, “was very much in the margin of this film.”
“The film shows it just to establish the background, and of course to establish the side who was bombed.” What’s more important to the story, Herzog said, is that “for Dieter the war lasted exactly forty minutes. He was shot down after forty minutes into his first flight. He never planned or wanted to go to war; the only thing that he wanted was to fly. And the only chance he had as a foreigner was signing up for the armed forces here and becoming a pilot. Flying was the fulfillment of his ultimate dream. It’s only a chain of coincidence that he ended up in a war three weeks after he got his wings, right on an aircraft carrier.”
Which is one way of looking at it. It’s definitely disturbing to watch a man join America’s death squads as dream fulfillment, but Herzog hasn’t generally shied away from grabbing a sensitive topic out of its previously reliable framework. Lessons of Darkness (1992), which Herzog says is less a documentary than science fiction film, surveys the Kuwaiti desert in the aftermath of the Gulf War. J. Hoberman described it in Premiere as a “travelogue of hell: flaming geysers, seas of black, bubbling pitch . . .” Herzog said of it: “It is not so interesting in a movie to name horse and rider, as we say in a proverb in Germany. We don’t need to denounce Saddam for having done it or naming Kuwait as being attacked. What’s important is that it was an event of a magnitude as if an entire world was burning. In sixty minutes of film there’s not a single shot where you can recognize our planet any more. Not one shot. Not one. It is like a vision that is far beyond the actual events, and it had to be preserved for the memory of mankind, humankind, somehow, in a different way than the TV stations, CNN and so o, would do it with their quick twenty-second clips that you saw day after day after day.”
While horse and rider are named in Little Dieter, Perhaps the most conventional of all Herzog’s feature films, they don’t get much pause. The Americans may have been doing the bombing, but in this film Dieter—eating rodents, stumping his way to Thailand, watching his companions shit out their intestines—hardly qualifies as one of that comfortable breed. Still a POW survival story is one that too many people think they understand. Even though the film has the outward trappings of accessibility to mainstream audiences (they say that at Telluride it got standing ovations on four nights), it may not disappoint the Herzog faithful looking for signs of the surreal. Because, much as Herzog wants his Greek chorus, this is a film that’s less about them ore obvious dream and punishment than about the stranger concept of mortal pain and its relation to the experience of being human.
Yes, Herzog brings a refreshing layer of perversity to this project. Not content to talk to Dieter about his experiences, Herzog characteristically maneuvers Dieter physically back to the location of his POW experiences to personally reenact them. (Though it’s actually Thailand standing in for Laos, which, rightfully angry about all those landmines still killing its children, wouldn’t permit them to shoot there.) And while it is difficult for Dieter—he’s shaking at times—Herzog says it’s not the healing process/post-traumatic stress disorder exorcism it appears to be. Dieter was “in his element,” assistant director Golder said, possibly prickly about being criticized for exploitation of his subject. “He’s been back to southeast Asia many times—Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, also Cambodia. He’s a strong and healthy human being.” He can take the so-called voyage to hell, and enjoy it.
This time Hades is in the landscape of the mind, but just as often it’s outside it. Setting is essential for Herzog, who famously said he directs bodies of land as much as he directs actors. He’s known as much for his wrangles with the African desert and the Amazonian dry season as for those with the wile child Kinski. Years into the Fitzcarraldo fiasco, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams recorded Herzog’s historic jungle soliloquy: “Nature here is vile and base. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and rotting away …” But you have to hear the rest to realize why Herzog’s obsessed by the place. “We have to get acquainted with the idea that there is no harmony in the universe, no real harmony as we conceive it. There is some harmony in the jungle, a harmony of overwhelming, collective murder. In comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we only sound and look like badly pronounced, half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel.”
For Herzog, hell seems to be a happy place. Anything that shows humans how much chaos they’ve been avoiding is a happy place. For Little Dieter, on the other hand, Herzog said he was filming in landscapes that a three-year-old child accompanied by a granny could travel through. So of course he wanted a challenge. His plan was to have himself and Dieter swim the Mekong and bushwhack their way to the original crash site for Dengler’s aircraft. But his crew talked him out of it. The most compelling reason: he didn’t want Dieter to have to spend the rest of his days in a Laotian jail.
An artist who’s D.V. includes assorted thousand-kilometer journeys by foot, Herzog is a man to whom pain is fundamental. In a 1979 Film Comment interview he said of America’s “civilization” that “we do not have any elemental experiences—hunger, fear, being imprisoned, pain.” His opinion hasn’t changed much. “You have to be careful about speaking of absence of pain,” he told me. “But it is an alarming signifier for me that so much pain relief is being sold in drugstores at quantities that are not healthy in this kind of civilization any more. And I’m not speaking of physical pain relief. There’s a kind of non-commitment to deep, even hurting passions.”
Which leads, for Herzog, to the catastrophic loss of imagination. He feels that storytelling and the creative life of the mind have been particularly victimized by TV, and by the commercials that puncture any kind of meditative experience like hand grenades. “I feel ashamed as if it were 100 years ahead from now and my great-grandchildren will ask me how was it possible that in your generation that everything that was a story was somehow chopped into pieces and sold to commercials, that our fantasies were invaded by products of the market,” Herzog said. “How can you allow that? The same way we would ask how can you, our great-great-grandparents, have still had slaves here in the United States. Or how is it possible that 200 years before that you were still burning witches. How is it possible? Our great-great-grandchildren will ask this question unto us. And I have no answer to it, and I cannot stop it. It is the destruction of storytelling.”
That’s how Herzog talks. He does see the world through Olympian lenses and appears to be on a lifelong jihad against the trivial. Dieter Dengler does not have a flying hobby, he has a dream, one that is given full mythic weight by the final shot of Herzog’s film, where Dengler walks through Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and is swallowed up in the image of planes stretching into the horizon, as if there were no end to them.
The horizon is never far from Herzog’s consciousness. In the next couple years, he’s going to be in Mexico and Belgium, the mountains of westernmost China and the Amazon in Brazil. One place he’s not currently too interested in is Germany. “There is a very strange insecurity and culture of complaint since the reunification, which is one of the most glorious events for Germany, he said. “How would Ireland celebrate if reunification were to happen tomorrow? Germany celebrated for a week and then slumped into utmost gloom and wailing.”
For the time being he seems to have chosen the Bay Area, where he keeps an apartment, as refuge. “I want to be in a place where there is much more life in culture and in filmmaking,” he said. “And San Francisco has a great advantage. It has its back to America and its front to the Pacific, to China and to Japan and to Asia. The ass of San Francisco is turned towards America.” San Francisco also happens to be the home of longtime Herzog friends, fans and colleagues—his friendships with Coppola and Blank and Tom Luddy stretch back to the seventies. For Little Dieter he even searched out his pal Don Ed Hardy’s tattoo shop for a scene. As to how he’s using his friendships for upcoming projects, he remained vague, but he did specify that he’s doing a film on Kinski and is hoping, with a couple of features in the works (at least one with Coppola) to move back to the world of pure invention, back to the kind of filmmaking that earned him his reputation twenty years ago.
To read interviews from that time, it’s amazing that Herzog is still churning out reels. In 1979 he told Film Comment that filmmaking destroys directors, that he didn’t want to age without grace, like a boxer past his prime. Now he stands as a challenge to that thesis. Yet filmmaking, he was saying even last week, has killed “the best and the strongest that were ever around. Like Buster Keaton. Or look at probably the strongest person we ever witnessed in filmmaking: Orson Welles. The last twenty-five years of his life were a miserable path from one party to the next. The strongest of the animals somehow was destroyed.”
He attributes his own longevity to “stepping out of films. I have traveled on foot all alone very long distances. I have staged operas; I have raised children. And that’s probably the part of it that is giving me certain independence and stability.”
In words that would sound strangely self-help-like if they hadn’t been spoken by a man whose life would read like a libretto, Herzog says of his time in film, “I don’t have a career, I only have a life….I am just doing the slalom as good as I can, and I’m trying to avoid a head-on collision at 180 mph with the next rock or the next tree.”