Thursday, 7 March 2019

Werner Herzog and Dieter Dengler

Human folly, madness, barbaric dreams, the thin veneer of civilisation, the overwhelming evil of the universe, faith and superstition, human cruelty and violence, the hubristic desire to conquer nature. These are some of the themes present in Greek tragedy, and the films of German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

Currently, Herzog is promoting his feature film Rescue Dawn, a (controversial) version of his earlier documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which concerns the life of German-American aviator and Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler.

Dengler emigrated to America from post-war Germany aged 18 to pursue his dream of flying planes – Germany had no airforce or airlines at the time – and ended up becoming a US Navy pilot. Three weeks after gaining his wings, in January 1966, Dengler – whose aim in life was to fly, not go to war – was sent to Vietnam, where he was shot down over Laos forty minutes into his first mission, captured, imprisoned and routinely tortured by the enemy.

Fearing imminent execution, Dengler took part in a daring escape, after which he survived even more ordeals in the jungle, before, finally, emaciated, on the point of starvation, hallucinating, ‘with one day to live’, being rescued – making Dengler the only American POW to have successfully escaped captivity in Laos.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a tribute to America – its ‘qualities of self-reliance, courage [and] frontier spirit’, its inclusiveness, its preparedness to judge a person by personal character and not collective background – and an effort to give legitimacy to the stories of post-war Germany and post-war Germans.

But Dieter Dengler’s story, for Herzog, also possesses ‘the quality and structure of an ancient Greek tragedy, [which] is that of a man and his dreams, his punishment and redemption.’

Now, redemption is a strange word to use in relation to Greek tragedy. Redemption is not only normally associated with Christianity – with its just God, afterlife and soteriology – but is also often regarded, see George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy, as being the Christian concept most inimical to the Greek tragic worldview and most responsible for its demise in Western culture.

So perhaps Herzog doesn’t mean redemption in Dieter Dengler’s case in a Christian sense, but in a way consistent with Greek tragedy and Greek radical pessimism.

Perhaps he means that Dengler, having endured severe mental and physical suffering, ‘having seen what death looks like and escaped it’, took his dark experience and turned it into an affirmation of life.

Indeed, this is what Little Dieter Needs to Fly – see clip above – and Herzog’s own personal testimony indicate.

‘The man,’ Herzog says of Dengler, ‘had such an intense enjoyment of life… There was a real innocence about [him]. He had such a healthy and impressive and jubilant attitude to life, [and] never made a fuss about his captivity.

‘He never had to struggle for his sanity and certainly was not possessed by those things that you see so often among Vietnam veterans who returned home destroyed inside.’