THE WHITE DIAMONDNR
Werner Herzog's documentaries are personal narratives: They're as much about him as they are about his subjects. The White Diamond, the story of Dr. Graham Dorrington's dirigible, is no exception. Herzog narrates and he appears in the documentary, as he did in My Best Fiend (1999), a bittersweet panegyric to actor Klaus Kinski. Following the escapades of Dorrington, a British aeronautical engineer, Herzog is returned to the Amazon rainforest, the setting for two of his best-known feature films, Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. This time the riparian jungle is not an indifferent witness, as it was in Aguirre, nor does it present obstacles as it did in Fitzcarraldo; in fact, Dorrington is there to illustrate the biome's potential, and the Bavarian-born filmmaker appears disquieted by the scientist's enthusiasm.
Dr. Dorrington, plagued by the memory of Dieter Plage, a wildlife photographer who died in one of his airships over a decade ago, is asked to participate in a project that would become a tribute to Plage. Dorrington was to build another small airship, and The White Diamond is about the design and testing of that fish-shaped dirigible. While Herzog gives the charismatic and pedantic Dorrington a great deal of freedom in shaping the first part of the film-Dorrington addresses the camera directly-the two men appear to work at cross-purposes. Dorrington is a nature lover who believes that the rainforest will yield anodynes, and Herzog has many times used wild places to reflect his belief that nature is indifferent to man. After flying with the doctor on the airship's maiden voyage-and arguing with him beforehand about filming it-Herzog immediately loses interest in the setting and in his subject. He got the shot he needed. The danger of flying in the dirigible is past. Herzog moves on to one of the hired help, a Rastafarian whose best friend is a rooster.
Herzog, who possesses a peculiar talent for elevating the quotidian to the archetypal, is, in The White Diamond, mostly insouciant. Adrift in the rainforest with a cerebral scientist, his ballast becomes the Rastafarian. Through this bearded, mystical protagonist, Herzog perceives the rainforest and, by extension, nature, as a place of solace: The Rastafarian is an accomplished herbalist, and he leads the filmmaker to a spot with a view of a resplendent falls, a site the local indigenous people consider sacred. While Herzog, a master of the medium, takes full advantage of this turn of fortune, we're left to wonder what happened to Dr. Dorrington.
Herzog's musical score, always an interesting aspect of his work, is somewhat bizarre in The White Diamond: The dirigible's glide over the canopy is accompanied by discordant vocals and drumming, and in other moments of incredible natural beauty, the music turns so atonal as to detract from the image. Despite these and other faults, Herzog illustrates through both Dorrington and the Rastafarian the wonder of simply being human. That, after all, is what the director does best: The dirigible, named the "white diamond" by the Rastafarian, is nothing more for Herzog than a symbol of the human spirit escaping its earthly incarnation, soaring to heights it was never meant to survive.