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.