Werner Herzog's Incredible Saga of Little Dieter (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparisons)

Guys, if your familiarity with Werner Herzog as a documentarian begins with Grizzly Man, go back and check out 1997's Little Dieter Needs To Fly right away.  That's a bit of a weird period for Herzog... not among his classic 70s stuff with Kinski, Bruno S., etc, but far from his newer projects that've been reaching millennial audiences.  His films from around this may have less of a reputation, but he had some really heavy hitters then, too, like this wild documentary project Herzog seemingly became fascinated with.
The majority of this doc is based on direct interviews with the titular Dieter.  He starts be telling us a dream-like story of being a young boy in a small German village during WWII, playing upstairs in his room, when bomber plans flew through and destroyed the whole place.  He says he looked out his window, made direct eye contact with one of the pilots, and that's when he decided he had to become an American pilot himself.  So he came to America, joined the navy, and wound up on an air craft carrier during the Vietnam war.  He flew a bomber over Vietnam and got shot down, and spent years as an MIA, living in the jungle and spending most of that time as a POW in a prison camp where he was tortured and starved, until he was eventually able to lead a violent uprising and escape.
It's an incredible story of survival, but what's almost as unbelievable is the way Herzog has Dieter tell his story.  Herzog starts innocently enough, suiting him up in his old uniform and getting him back in his old plane, and back to his old German village.  But soon he's taking him back into the jungles of Vietnam to essentially relive his traumas.  Dieter calls back very detailed recollections and personal anecdotes of his experiences, and Herzog reconstructs the scenes around him.  As soon as Dieter tells us how he was forced to run through the jungle, arms tied behind his back, with armed Vietnamese soldiers pushing him along, Herzog has armed Vietnamese locals run him through the jungle with his arms behind his back!  Still, Dieter is charming and fascinating as he leads us along the same journey he'd undergone decades earlier.  It's a unique combination of first-person reportage and recreation in the same scenes, making for a very vivid telling of an extreme human experience.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly debuted on American DVD from Anchor Bay in 2001.  They reissued it a few times over the years, but I still have the original.  Also, as we've already seen in past entries, I've since got my hands on Shout Factory's massive, Herzog: The Collection blu-ray box set from 2014.  There, it shares a disc with Lessons of Darkness, which you can see in the link I've already covered.
2001 US Anchor Bay DVD top; 2017 US Shout Factory blu bottom.
So, wow.  You don't need me to point out the most glaring difference here.  The DVD looks overly washed in reddish brown, giving it a not unnatural, but murky look.  But it also seems like the pendulum may've swung too far in the opposite direction on the blu.  I mean, the film is full of mud, bamboo, wood and dirt.  The film's supposed to be fairly heavy on the brown, and just watching the DVD on its own (i.e. outside of a direct comparison), nothing really looks wrong about the colors except that the whites are pushed a little into the reds as well.  It just looks a little too brown, like the colors got flattened a bit.  Now the blu is really playing up the greens and blus of the film.  And sure, this film does also contain a lot of natural greenery of the jungle and blu skies.  Just watching the blu on its own, the colors aren't too distractingly off either.  The other shots earlier in this post are also from the blu-ray, so you can see the film doesn't look like it's under an invasive blue hue, per se.  But boy, seeing the two transfers side by side, it sure is an extreme change, and I wonder if the ideal color timing isn't somewhere in the middle; and closer to the DVD side of that middle.
2001 US Anchor Bay DVD left; 2017 US Shout Factory blu right.
Colors aside, it's a distinct boost in quality.  The DVD looks very compressed, with a lot of artifacting and softness when you get in close.  And all of that is happily cleared up in the HD transfer.  Even considering the color timing, I wouldn't recommend going back to the DVD.  The blu-ray also changes the aspect ratio a bit, from 1.84 to 1.78, unveiling more vertical information, and shifting a bit horizontally.  The blu is much more distinct than the DVD, but the unclear grain and a general lightness of detail betrays the fact that this is an older master, taken from a blow-up (the booklet tells us the negative was incomplete), and even without better source materials could probably look a bit better with a fresh 2 or 4k scan.  There's also some unevenness simply because this film seems to have been constructed with differing film stock (so why not a composited remaster using the negative elements that were available?), not to mention your typical documentarian inclusions of archival footage, meaning that the quality would be shifting somewhat even with an absolutely perfect transfer.  This is the only HD release of this film to date, however, and as I said, a big jump forward from the DVD.  Just not cutting edge.
This film's always just had a mono track, and that's all either disc gives us.  The blu-ray's is an uncompressed DTS-HD presentation, though, and adds English subtitles, which the DVD was lacking.  As for special features, neither disc has anything, not even a trailer.  This is disappointing, because this was released right around the time Herzog was giving Anchor Bay audio commentaries for everything, and Shout's Collection preserves them all.  But for some reason, he gave it a miss on this film, which is a shame.
The reason why I suggested Herzog was fascinated by Dieter's tale earlier is because, almost twenty years after completing and releasing the doc, he wasn't done with the story.  In 2006, Herzog released one of his most mainstream films, Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale.  And it's an out and out dramatization of Little Dieter Needs To Fly.  Bale is Dieter.

Co-starring Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn may appear on its face to be a more typical, Hollywood film.  In fact, even as a serious Herzog fan, it still took me a year or two to finally getting around to watching this film, because I sort of figured I'd already seen the superior telling.  I thought I didn't need to see this anymore than I needed to see the American remakes of The Vanishing or Wings of Desire (remember that one?).  But I should've had more faith in Herzog, because when I finally got around to it, it was pretty damn good.
I won't rehash the plot, because it's incredibly faithful to Dieter's real journey, as explored in the documentary.  But it's terrifically photographed and acted, with Herzog's penchant for traveling to ideal, exotic locales to set his films in.  And because it's so true to the actual events, it shakes loose of the typical Hollywood structures (though it has a bit of cheesy conclusion tacked on at the end).  If you're not familiar with the documentary, you'll never predict where or when it's going to take its next step.  And if you do remember the original film, I think it's actually an even more rewarding experience as Dieter's words are brought to vivid life on screen with impressive production values.
Being a new American studio film in 2006, it naturally hit both DVD and blu-ray formats (and even HD-DVD) in 2007 from MGM.  I actually have the Canadian blu-ray, also from MGM, just because I was able to find it dirt cheap.  Apart from the additional French on its packaging (apparently this film is a.k.a. Secours a L'Aube), however, it appears to be exactly the same as its US counterpart.  And I've borrowed a copy of the US DVD to compare it to.
2007 US MGM DVD on top; 2007 Canadian MGM blu-ray bottom.
Being concurrent editions of a new release film, there's no surprise that the root transfers are nearly identical.  Both are framed at about 1.84-1.85:1 (depending whether you count some single pixel width fraying on either side of the image), with identical coloring, etc.  The only difference, of course, is the natural glasses on/ glasses off distinction between the standard definition DVD and HD blu-ray.  It really is a nice boost on the blu, though.  In that second set of shots, for instance, you can really see the details pop to life as you click between the two screenshots.

Both editions feature English, French and Spanish mixes in 5.1 and English and Spanish subtitles.  But of course, only the blu-ray has the audio in lossless DTS-HD.
And unlike Little Dieter, Rescue Dawn is packed with extras.  This time we do get the traditional Herzog commentary, with regular moderator Norman Hill.  They're always great, and this is no exception; and yes, they definitely talk about Dieter and all the connections between the two films.  There's also a nearly hour-long documentary, which is great to see the locations they traveled to, how they built the prisoner camp from the ground up, etc.  And perhaps most importantly of all are the deleted scenes.  fans of Little Dieter surely noticed a couple of short but major details from Dieter's story that didn't appear in Dawn (particularly the bit about the wedding ring).  Well, it turns out that stuff was shot, and I suppose cut for pacing or other pragmatic reasoning; but it's very satisfying to see it envisioned as additional content.  Unfortunately, these deleted scenes are in interlaced non-anamorphic SD.  But on the plus side, they also feature optional audio commentary by Herzog and Hill.  You really get everything you could want included here.

In fact, it borders on going overboard.  There's a featurette where they interview real Vietnam vets about their experiences, which isn't uninteresting, but barely connects to the movie.  It reminds me of those jewelers on The Pink Panther disc, or the "real world" ghost hunters on the Poltergeist blu.  And there's a weird interactive war memorial feature, which lets you browse around the Vietnam War Memorial.  They're definitely stretching at this point.  Plus there's the trailer, a big photo gallery, bonus trailers and a trivia subtitle track.  They didn't really need to pad it out, because there's so much high quality legit stuff.
So I definitely recommend both films, in particular Little Dieter Needs To Fly.  And if you've seen Rescue Dawn before, go back and revisit it after Little Dieter, and I think you'll find an even richer appreciation for it.  Unfortunately, Little Dieter is only available on blu in Shout's massive (and expensive) 16 film Collection.  Of course, the whole set's pretty great (and yes, I do eventually plan to offer comparisons for every single one of those films on this site), but it's not the kind of thing all of us can just casually spring for.  So it's too bad there aren't any single disc release options.  You might just want to pick up a cheap DVD copy instead.  If it makes you feel any better, you can tell yourself you didn't want the the blu, anyway, because it's too blue.  I mean, surely that sketch should've looked more like this, right?
2001 US Anchor Bay DVD.

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