Vet German director Werner Herzog continues to mine the docu side of his career with “The White Diamond,” centered on an aircraft experiment in the Amazon jungle. Herzog’s eye for the weird sometimes makes the docu feel strained, but engaging characters imbue the pic with depth and emotional appeal. Fest and tube slots look a given on helmer’s name alone, but adventurous distribs could also capitalize on his rep among older, upscale auds.
Lifting off with a condensed history of flight that culminates with the Hindenburg’s conflagration, film introduces British aeronautic scientist Dr. Graham Dorrington, a boyish eccentric who has invented a two-person craft to use to gain access to the Amazon canopy for medical research. As Herzog asks Dorrington about a disastrous experiment he did as a teen that left him bereft of two fingers, the interviewer/narrator, with merciless precision, characterizes Dorrington as an accident-prone bumbler.
Dorrington displays child-like enthusiasm for his airship project, but his exuberance is tempered by his involvement in the death of nature cameraman Dieter Plage a decade earlier. A one-time colleague of Herzog’s, Plage is the link between author and subject, and Plage’s death is a reminder that Dorrington’s Amazon experiment is fraught with peril.
Herzog establishes Plage’s credentials, but he teases auds by withholding the exact circumstances of Plage’s death.
Film takes full flight when it switches to the experiment site in the British colony of Guyana. Dorrington’s crew is supported by local Rastafarian diamond miners, the most prominent of which is Mark Anthony Yhap, a soulful philosopher who embodies the “noble savage” cliche. Yhap christens the airship “the White Diamond.”
Herzog encourages the beguiling Yhap to pursue his beatific and sometimes bizarre contemplations for the camera. A speech in which Yhap considers commandeering the craft to fly to his long-lost mother’s European home is the most touching and captures the combination of poignancy and oddity that characterized Herzog’s early works. The eloquent but uneducated Yhap contrasts with the emotionally wounded Dorrington.
At the one-hour mark, Dorrington’s contrition is fully revealed when, at Herzog’s prompting, he gives a detailed explanation of Plage’s death. (Herzog’s continuous prodding doesn’t always help the film’s progress, however: There are awkward lulls where neither he nor Dorrington appear to know what to do next.)
Herzog uses his clout as producer to ensure he can take part in the airship’s maiden flight. The on-screen disagreement about his participation reveals the director at his manipulative best, and also his most entertaining. Having achieved his objective, the beaming Herzog is strapped in the aircraft and utters words that will warm the hearts of film-makers everywhere: “In celluloid we trust.”
Herzog’s dry, Germanic narration keeps pic on an even keel while also supplying a layer of ironic wit. But film’s most eloquent moments come when he just lets the camera revel in the beauty of the Amazonian jungle.
An extended coda is rapturous. Following the flight of birds, as they dart around cascading waterfalls, the images are winningly adorned with choral chants and evocative cello music.
Lensing is impeccable, and loses nothing in HD projection. Other tech credits are 24 carat.