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Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)

Not Rated | | Documentary, Biography, Drama | 2 October 1998 (USA)
German-American Dieter Dengler discusses his service as a U.S. naval pilot in the Viet Nam War. Dengler also revisits the sites of his capture and eventual escape from the hands of the Viet Cong, recreating many events for the camera.


Werner Herzog


Werner Herzog

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Nominated for 1 Primetime Emmy. Another 5 wins & 2 nominations. See more awards »


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Complete credited cast:
Dieter Dengler ... Himself
Werner Herzog ... Himself - Narrator (voice)
Eugene Deatrick Eugene Deatrick ... Himself


In 1966, Dieter Dengler was shot down over Laos, captured, and, down to 85 pounds, escaped. Barefoot, surviving monsoons, leeches, and machete-wielding villagers, he was rescued. Now, near 60, living on Mt. Tamalpais, Dengler tells his story: a German lad surviving Allied bombings in World War II, postwar poverty, apprenticed to a smith, beaten regularly. At 18, he emigrates and peels potatoes in the U.S. Air Force. He leaves for California and college, then enlistment in the Navy to learn to fly. A quiet man of sorrows tells his story: war, capture, harrowing conditions, escape, and miraculous rescue. Where did he find the strength; how does he now live with his memories? Written by <jhailey@hotmail.com>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Not Rated | See all certifications »



Germany | UK | France


English | German

Release Date:

2 October 1998 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Flucht aus Laos See more »

Filming Locations:

San Francisco, California, USA See more »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs

Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.85 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


The exotic-sounding music heard during the "native" sequences is Tuvan overtone music, sometimes called "throat music." It enables the singer to sound as if he had two or more voices. See more »


The Movie Poster shows what's actually a German Luftwaffe aircraft painted with US markings. See more »


Dieter Dengler: I don't think of myself as a hero. No, only dead people are heroes.
See more »

Alternate Versions

The DVD release adds an epilogue which tells of Dieter Dengler's death from ALS in February 2001 and shows footage of his burial at Arlington National Cemetary. See more »

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User Reviews

you almost can't believe a man like Dieter existed, but here he is, in brilliant Herzogian detail
25 January 2007 | by MisterWhiplashSee all my reviews

We see at the beginning of Little Dieter Needs to Fly Dieter Dengler, the subject of the film, an obsessive-compulsive. Or at least that's what he seems to be by way of constantly opening/closing doors and with his large stock-pile of food in the cellar. In a way director Werner Herzog sets up a central question, in a manner of speaking, to why Dieter is like this. Well, in fact, he's not necessarily obsessive-compulsive as he is just, well, prepared. And why shouldn't he be after the life he's lived? Aside from the juiciest, most dark and exhilarating and frightening and just downright haunting story of survival that's the core of the picture, the back-story to Dieter is fascinating too. Dieter's own childhood, for example, was already a slog from the start, being in post-war Germnay, poor in a family without much food or prospects, eating wallpaper for "the blue in the walls". But enter in a passion, an un-yielding desire (which, of course, is part of Herzog's bread & butter and love of man in his films), which is flying, and for Dieter there was nothing else but to fulfill this. What it ends up leading to, after becoming an American citizen, is more than he could've bargained for.

Dieter is one of Herzog's most compelling, quirky, and compassionately observed figures in his whole career, a man who's memory is scarred by brutal memories of his time being a Vietnam POW, though at the least it provides for some of the most compelling storytelling in any documentary of the last 20 years. Ironically, the storytelling comes through- unlike in The Wild Blue Yonder- mostly in lots and lots of exposition from Dieter on some of the most minute details of his time in the different prison camps (the torture tactics, the bugs, the brutal, wretched violence and threats like with the wedding ring tale), and leading into the most interesting and sad portions with his best friend Duane. They escaped the prisons together, but found that their journey to reach Cambodia would not be so easy. Now, through most of this, the talking does something that is enthralling, which is that as Dieter goes through his stories and occasionally does re-enactments (in fashion Herzog could only do, with Dieter already middle-aged being led in handcuffs et all through the jungle), one can picture all of this in the mind. It all becomes even more vivid to try and get these little details and the intensity of it all together into a form of reality. That Herzog keeps these portions simple, and knows when to hold Dieter back in his answers, makes him all the more a key figure of interest. He's not ever totally 'normal', but unlike a Timothy Treadwell, you wont think ever really about laughing at him either.

So, along with his hero (whether of war or not is hard to say, as Dieter disputes that claim as saying the ones who died were the real heroes, typical but perhaps quite true), Herzog stylizes his film with a mix of old stock footage when detailing Dieter's early life (the period footage of WW2 scenes and post German rubble is always a captivating sight, and with Herzog gets up a notch in his timing and assemblage with music), and in capturing the footage of Vietnam in aerial viewings of jungles and fields. Herzog is also very wise at not injecting politics much at all into the proceedings, there's no 'I was used by the Americans' or whatever thrown into the mix. There's even a sense that Dieter doesn't hold too much of a grudge with everything that happened to him, that it's just what happens in time of war (and, of course, he WAS dropping bombs on people from his plane). Now, through much of these harrowing- and even in the smaller bits involving what went on in prisons, bathrooms and the scraps of food it's always harrowing- luckily Herzog keeps a level of humor in check as well. One of my very favorite scenes in the film, where Herzog breaks away for a moment from Dieter, is when he shows a 'trainee' film used for American soldiers meant to show what should happen in case they get abandoned in the jungle alone...with all of the gear that they could possibly have including a knife, a flare gun, and a very fast helicopter to come around (and this is put to hilariously dead-pan voice-over work).

Yet even the moments where one laughs only brings to mind the moments of absurdity in a time of absolute crisis, and how one can't ever really imagine what it's like to be alone in a foreign territory surrounded by people who will do anything to keep said person as a form of collateral in war-time. Dieter, aside from knowing that flying and airplanes are the only way of life he would ever want to have (and Herzog ends the film on a wonderfully somber, elegiac note where he flies over a large field of airplanes), knows what it is to have to survive at all costs. But yet, as well, as in many of Herzog's protagonist driven films, there's the near unalterable spirit that will keep on enduring if one's strong enough, even through horrid moments (the fate of Dunae) and problems all the way up to the rescue by the helicopter (is he American, or a spy, they ask on the chopper). Dieter is such a man with a spirit, and he's given via Herzog a fantastic, tragic, creative, well-shot, albeit maybe too short, tribute to his life. And, of course, it pumps me up even more for the upcoming dramatization Rescue Dawn.

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