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Film review: Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Tale of ex-POW works, thanks to skillful direction

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 26 1998 5:43 p.m. MDT

There are a lot of current motion pictures that have had difficulty creating even one compelling character. "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" has just one subject, but his life could make several interesting movies.

The focus of this fascinating documentary from veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog ("Cobra Verde," "Fitzcarraldo," "Aguirre: The Wrath of God") is Dieter Dengler, a 50-something German-American who left his home at age 18 to come to the United States, hoping he could learn to fly an airplane.

In a series of revealing interviews, Dengler relates his experiences as a youngster growing up in impoverished, post-World War II Germany, his frustrated attempts to fly for the U.S. Navy and, during a later stint as a U.S. Air Force pilot, how he was shot down over Laos in 1966 and became a prisoner of war.

The latter tale dominates the film as an obviously emotional Dengler describes his day-to-day fear and the loss he felt when his best friend was killed during their harrowing escape from a prison camp.

Mixing archival footage from Vietnam War bombing raids, as well as dramatic re-enactments of some events Dengler describes in the interviews, Herzog vividly captures this charismatic personality on celluloid.

His use of effects (such as having Dengler tell his stories in the midst of re-enactments) might be less justifiable in the hands of a less skilled director. But it works here, thanks to Dengler's riveting presence and the almost surreal, dreamlike tone of the piece.

That probably would have backfired on another filmmaker as well, but it seems appropriate for what amounts to a "tall tale," albeit truthful, sort of storytelling. In fact, Herzog — best known to U.S. audiences for his features — does such a good job with it that you wonder if the documentary genre might not be his ideal filmmaking format.

"Little Dieter Needs to Fly" is not rated, but would probably receive a PG-13 for wartime violence, scattered profanities and some graphic descriptions of torture.

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