Narrating Dieter

I decided to screen something a little different for this Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc.  I usually show films that are addressing a topic that I think will stimulate some discussion, though I try to make selections that have some artistic value as well. This month, however, I decided to show Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which is a fabulous film, but one that has no single organizing principle beyond the life of Dieter Dengler and, therefore, no obvious place to begin a discussion.  Though I was certain that we would find something to interest us, I had no idea what shape our conversation would take.

As I expected, the interaction after the film was a little more scattered than it usually is.  A few shared their initial impressions, and then we followed several tangents, and then we got sidetracked altogether, but the end result was still interesting, at least to me, and the conversation did not come completely to an end until some time around midnight. Among the many ideas that were shared, someone suggested that perhaps the appeal of Dengler’s life is as much due to his narration of it, to the way that he tells it, as it is to the events that comprise it.  Someone else made another comment almost immediately afterwards, and I did not make an effort to return to this idea, but it intrigued me nevertheless, and I began to reflect on how the narrative is actually structured.

The film is basically divided between two narrators: Dengler himself, who is most often an on-screen narrator, and Herzog, who is always an off-screen narrator.  This approach to the narration is uncommon for Herzog, who usually prefers to do most of the narration himself, and who appears as a participant in almost all of his films to one degree or another.  The two voices, both male, both with German accents, do not contrast each other strongly, but they are clearly different.  Dengler’s less pronounced accent and more casual diction always distinguish him from Werner’s heavily germanic English and his tendency to rhetorical excess.  The two compliment each other, but remain always distinct.

Dengler’s narrative voice begins the film.  The opening scene has him speaking to an artist who has drawn one of the visions that he saw during his escape through the jungle.  Dengler explains to the artist how his drawing is inaccurate, and this explanation includes an expressive account of the vision itself, which he describes as hundreds of horses galloping through huge doors in the heavens.  This scene establishes his narrative voice in a way that the film continually reinforces, as both the authentic and authenticating voice of the one who was there and who has lived through a real event and also the mystical and mystifying voice of the one who is now here after having experienced the surreal and the miraculous.

Herzog’s narrative voice usually lies across Dengler’s.  It summarizes and informs, and it thereby abstracts from Dengler also.  It is the voice of the one who was not there, who has not experienced, but who therefore has the capacity to draw the narrative back from Dengler’s intimate voice and to examine that voice at a distance, as an object and as a specimen.  There is one fascinating scene that illustrates this function very clearly, where Herzog’s narration of a story is superimposed on a shot of Dengler, whose hand gestures clearly indicate that he is telling the same story at almost exactly the same time.  Here, the scene says clearly, Herzog thought that his directorial voice was more appropriate to the story of Dengler’s life than Dengler’s own, and I would argue that it is more appropriate, not because it is more authentic, but precisely because it is less authentic, because it is less intimate, because it forces the viewer to see Dengler rather than hear him, to watch his gestures rather than to be drawn into the intimacy of his narrative.

In this way, the two narrative voices function to continually reposition the viewer between the intimacy and authority and mysticism of Dengler’s voice and the distance and exteriority of Herzog’s voice.  Dengler’s voice alone would have told a story that was too compelling, too hypnotic.  We, as viewers, would have fallen into the illusion that we were not really viewers at all, not really observers, but somehow participants also in the narrative of his life.  We would have convinced ourselves that his narrative was adequate to his life, that it was somehow capable of giving us its essence.  This is the quality of Dengler’s voice, what makes it irresistible, and it is this that Herzog’s directorial narrative serves to disrupt.  It permits us to be enraptured with Dengler’s account only so long before it brings us up short, imposes itself between him and us, forces us to look at him from a distance and to see the man whose story and whose life has been allowing us to see the visions, both terrible and beautiful, that he once saw.

  1. Katerina said:

    This is such an intelligent and poetic response to the film. I really enjoyed the way you contrasted on the two narration styles and how they complemented each other. Of course, this is a prime example of how differently we respond to things. You write this wonderfully insightful response on the film’s construction, and all I could think after watching the film is how intense Dieter’s life story is and the magnitude of his resilience to unbelievable trials, ones that I could not withstand. But I enjoyed this post.


  2. Katerina,

    I am glad that you enjoyed the post.

    You say that you find Dengler’s story to be intense, and obviously the very events that he endured would be enough to justify this description, but what did the film do to make you feel this intensity? Were there scenes or elements that you recall that made you feel this more strongly than others?

    I am interested to know because it relates to the question of how media portrays the exceptional event, a problem that I have been thinking about lately.

  3. Alex said:

    Dengler’s voice is the first person voice – the voice “inside” the experience.

    Herzog is, by contrast, the voice “outside” the experience.

    Although compassionately disposed to Dengler’s personal pain, Herzog acts as a referee, pulling us back from the powerful attraction of this experience narrated by Dengler in the first person. But why?

    Dengler’s personal nightmare has not subsided with the passage of time. If anything, Dengler has every interest in trying to convey the most intense message possible. The more intense and shocking, the more therapeutic it is for him.

    Dengler is as much asking us: “Look what they did to me…those animals…can you believe the cruelty?…can you imagine how much I suffered?”

    Moreover, Dengler is being observed in the narration by the camera and he knows it. He plays to the audience he imagines to be there.

    Because observed behaviour is always altered, we should ask ourselves how this may affect Dengler’s own re-enactment of his experience.

    Herzog produces this documentary with a fine balance. He allows Dengler to give us a personal account, letting him do whatever he needs to in order to uncover this dark corner of his life. But Herzog also judiciously intercuts with his own more dispassionate script using the cooling effect of the third person.

    The truth of the story needs it. The viewer deserves it.

    How much can we really trust Dengler? His story could make retrospective reference to the politics of the war…the morality of napalm bombing countless innocents…but it doesn’t. It’s Dengler’s story about Dengler, seen from inside Dengler.

    While it’s very compelling, we should be aware of its boundaries.

  4. Alex,

    This is one of the places that I though our conversation might have gone that night but did not.

    I agree that Dengler is in many respects a highly unreliable narrator, however much he and even Herzog might construct him differently. There is a telling moment, for example, when he likens his own refusal to condemn the war in Vietnam to his grandfather’s refusal to vote for Hitler. This comparison remains unchallenged in the film, yet it is actually grossly misleading, first, because his grandfather was resisting a political decision in his own country rather than defending his government’s military action as a prisoner in a foreign country; second, because this military action was and remains highly questionable in moral, ethical, and even political terms; and third, because his comparison demonizes his captors by unjustifiably associating them with a man who has become synonymous with genocide, military aggression, and evil.

    I would not, however, regard Herzog’s narrative voice as being vastly more trustworthy, not only because I regard narrative as essentially untrustworthy, and not only because Herzog has often emphasized the subjectivity of his own directorial position, but also because his narrative voice often serves to strengthen rather than diminish the problems with Dengler’s story. He does not, for example, in any way ironize or undermine Dengler’s comparison between his grandfather’s situation and his own. In fact, he does not introduce the problem of Vietnam at all, and this kind of oversight hardly makes for a trustworthy narrator, whatever its artistic justifications might be.

    So, yes, I think it wise to be always wary of a narrator, and I think it even wiser to be wary of two narrators, especially when they seem frequently to agree.

  5. Matthew Harrison said:

    I did not feel the intensity in Dieters story, so maybe Herzog was a moderating voice. I came away from this film having to explain to friends where I was for the past 5 hours, and the words that left my mouth surprised me. I told them that I watched a film about the remarkable life of a celebrated hero, but this is not how I felt when I watched the movie.
    I simply felt very relaxed, and was thinking more about the war in Vietnam as a conflict, than Dieters personal story and conflict.

  6. Matthew Harrison said:

    Now that I have actually read your post Luke, it makes a lot of sense to me. I know Alex brought forth the idea of questioning the narrator, but reflecting on my feelings during the film, I did feel detached. I did not feel like I was living Dieter’s story.

  7. Matthew,

    What was it in particular that was drawing your attention to the war itself rather than to Dieter’s story? The film almost completely ignores the problem of the war as such, so what was it that brought your attention to it?

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