MADMEN & HEROES
by Howard Schumann

"I'm not a hero. Only people who are dead are heroes."
-- Dieter Dengler

Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a 1997 documentary by Werner Herzog about the life of Vietnam war hero Dieter Dengler, begins with a quotation from the Book of Revelations: "And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it, and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them." As the film starts, Dieter walks into a tattoo shop in San Francisco and looks at a painting of Death in a fiery, horse-drawn chariot. "Death didn't want me," he says, referring to his survival after six months in a Viet Cong prison camp.

Herzog documents Dengler's life from his childhood in Wildburg in the Black Forest region of Germany to his escape and rescue from Laos. Growing up in Germany during World War II, Dengler listened to the constant sound of Allied planes overhead and dreamed of becoming a pilot. "As a child," Herzog says in voice-over, "Dieter saw things that made no earthly sense at all. Germany had been transformed into a dreamscape of the surreal."

Dieter came to the United States when he was only 18, joined the Navy and was trained to become a pilot. He moved to California and was sent to Vietnam in 1966. "It all looked strange," Dieter says, "like a distant barbaric dream." On his first mission as a pilot, Dieter was shot down and captured by the Pathet Lao, then later turned over to the Viet Cong. He remained a prisoner in Laos for six months.

Told through archival footage, dream sequences, recreations in actual jungle locations, exotic music, and surreal imagery, the film is divided into four chapters, each representing a period from Dengler's life. Like a Greek tragedy, Herzog has named the sequences: The Man, His Dream, Punishment, and Redemption. This is not a linear documentary, but a very personal and poetic film. Having long been fascinated with the experience of men in jungles (Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) and having himself grown up in Germany during the war, Herzog provides a voice-over commentary that is as much about himself as it is about Dengler.

Dieter tells his gruesome tale in a strangely chatty, matter-of-fact manner, without anger or bitterness, almost nonchalantly recounting mind-numbing details of his captivity and torture. He does not try to place the events in a historical or political context or to comment on the rights and wrongs of the war, but provides a strictly personal account of his survival against overwhelming odds. Footage of both bombed out German cities in World War II and bombs lighting up the dense foliage over the Vietnam jungle make the experience very vivid. Dvorák and Bach, Tibetan throat singing, and native African chants are brilliantly interspersed to add depth and beauty to the experience. A chant from Madagascar, "Oay Lahy E", sung while Dieter walks through a sea of fighter planes, adds a final transcendent touch.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is an unforgettable film that moves beyond the limitations of the genre to become a moving testament to both the absurdity of war and the resilience of the spirit. Be sure to watch past the end credits on the DVD edition. There is a postscript that truly completes the experience.

In Luis Buñuel's masterful 1958 film Nazarin, Father Nazario (Francisco Rabal), a Catholic Priest, tries to imitate Christ by living a life of self-denial. He surrounds himself with prostitutes, beggars, thieves, and dwarfs, freely sharing his meager resources with others, but finds that his actions only produce distressing results.

Based on a novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, the film follows the gentle but sanctimonious priest in his travels through rural Mexico in 1900. Naively unconcerned with his own best interests, he provides refuge to Andara (Rita Macedo), a prostitute who has just killed another street girl in a knife fight. When he also befriends Andara's sister Beatriz (Marga López), suspicions arise among his superiors about his behavior. Forced to leave the church, he remains steadfast in his beliefs, going on the road dressed as a peasant and begging for alms. The sister's soon join him as disciples in his saintly pilgrimage, after a dying girl regains her health as a result of his prayers.

Nazarin's best intentions prove fruitless, however. He agrees to work on a road crew for food, but in so doing creates a labor dispute that leads to violence. His guidance is again rejected when he volunteers to help a woman dying of the plague, asking her to picture what Heaven looks like. In spite of the priest's equation of sexual desire with sin, all she wants is one more visit from her husband and lover. Arrested and thrown into prison with Andara, Nazarin's life becomes more and more Christ-like in its agony. He is beaten by a thug and begins to question his faith when he is unable to forgive his assailant.

Is Father Nazario an impractical fool trying to live by unrealistic ideals, or is he a modern-day Christ, sentenced by a soulless world to endure a similar fate? Buñuel sends us mixed messages. He attacks the hypocrisy of the church for not living up to the teachings of Christ, and seems to admire the priest for his rebellion against accepted social norms. Yet ultimately Nazario is just a sad and forlorn human being. Condemned by the church as a "nonconforming rebel," scorned by a society that does not understand his passion, he carries his "crown of thorns" to an uncertain end, perhaps realizing at last that his self-satisfied idealism did not include understanding the true nature of his humanity.

Today nearly everyone is familiar with holograms: three-dimensional images projected into space with the aid of a laser. As a result of their research with subatomic particles, some scientists now believe that the universe itself is a holographic projection and that all things are infinitely interconnected at a deeper level of reality. Rantes (Hugo Soto), an "extra" patient who just shows up at a mental hospital in Buenos Aires, would probably agree. In Eliseo Subiela's Man Facing Southeast (1986), Rantes tells psychiatrist Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros) that he is a projection who has been sent from another planet to study humanity and help the suffering. He claims that man is "in the prehistory of holographic projection" and that "his notions are delusionary." Rantes spends many hours simply standing in the courtyard facing southeast, ostensibly transmitting and receiving messages from his home planet. He seems to have all the normal attributes of a human being, but tells Dr. Denis that he does not have any human feelings.

Though Denis concludes that Rantes is insane and treats him with drugs and "counseling," he becomes increasingly fascinated with this strange individual who appears to possess extraordinary abilities. During their talks, Rantes articulates his thoughts about the human condition with amazing insight, telling the doctor that the patients are the sane ones since they do not subscribe to the blatant stupidity of so-called normal people. He tells Denis, "Your reality is terrifying, Doctor." The skeptical Dennis compares Rantes, whose charisma attracts other patients to him, to a Christ figure, and remarks that he himself has become the Pontius Pilate in this story.

The situation gets more involved when Denis falls in love with Beatriz (Inés Vernengo), a woman who visits Rantes in the hospital, claiming that she met him at her church. Their deepening relationship culminates in a concert in the park where Rantes, suddenly infected by human feelings, takes over the orchestra and conducts Beethoven's Ode to Joy as the audience and hospital patients break into a Dionysian dance. When the episode is reported in the newspaper, the doctor is called to task by his superior and told to increase Rantes' medication. Denis, becoming increasingly isolated and depressed, agrees, but begins to question the entire psychiatric establishment.

Man Facing Southeast is a thought provoking and entertaining film that examines the values society uses to judge those that are different. Though Rantes claims he is unfeeling, the contrast between his level of awareness and the closed-minded psychiatrists can perhaps stand as a metaphor for the leaders in today's society and those that are being led. Is Rantes a madman, a robot, a Christ-figure, an extra-terrestrial? Are the greatest virtues of mankind: love, compassion, and justice, rational or irrational? This haunting Argentine film allows the viewer to provide the answers.


©2003 Howard Schumann
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