For thousands of years before the point they actually achieved it, mankind has always dreamed of flying as the birds do. When they finally took to the skies, it was usually in aeroplanes, but there was an era where long distance flight in the skies was embarked upon with airships, until the disaster involving one of them, The Hindenburg, put people off the idea. But now there is one engineer, Dr Graham Dorrington, who has been trying to pioneer the return to airship travel because he believes it is ideal for the observation of nature. Conservationists could find a great benefit to his latest invention, a helium balloon perfect for hovering over rainforest canopies...
However, while he is telling us about all these ideas in his laboratory, director Werner Herzog draws our attention to the fact that Dr Dorrington is missing two fingers on his left hand and asks him about it. Knowing Herzog films, there is nothing casual about inviting an explanation for something like that, and when we hear that it is due to a childhood experiment with rockets that went wrong when one exploded while he was holding it, we cotton onto a key component of the doctor's personality. Herzog wishes to bring out the savageness of nature in these documentaries, and he has quite a story for us to appreciate in connection to one of Dr Dorrington's experiences.
He is a tortured soul as it turns out, and that initial upbeat nature masks a terrible tragedy where he feels responsible for the death of one of his best friends, wildlife filmmaker Gotz Dieter Plage. It wasn't Dorrington's fault, yet he still bears its burden as the expedition Plage died on was due to his plans, and he feels if he had not taken it upon himself to try out his airship in Sumatra his friend would be alive today. Herzog doesn't reveal the whole story of what happened until late on in the film, but when it arrives you cannot help but be moved as it's such a desperately sad tale that makes the success of this fresh expedition all the more imperative, if only to make Dorrington feel it had all been worth it.
Herzog took his usual approach to documentaries in that he would sometimes manufacture events to contribute towards the overall drama he wanted the narrative to go in, and he is well known for feeding his subjects lines for more impact, but when Dorrington tells us what exactly happened ten years before we can tell it is from the heart and Herzog did not need to embellish it. Similarly, once the production reaches the jungles of Guyana where they wish to test their airship, they find a chap called Mark Anthony who seems very laid back but has his own demons too, ones which make themselves plain in the stretches between the technical stuff that he is assisting with. He longs to see his family who left for Spain decades ago, and he cuts a poignant figure as he marvels at the airship and Herzog puts the idea in his mind that he could use it to fly the Atlantic to see his long lost mother.
This being one of the director's nature documentaries, there are many spectacular shots to be enjoyed, most notably of the towering waterfall nearby which Dorrington might have liked to fly down to get a better look at it and the cave that is the haven for thousands of birds. In typical Herzog style, he has one of his crew, a mountain climber, go down there next to the falls to take a look, but denies us the chance to see the footage he gathers because he wants the cave to remain sacred and its secrets kept. The footage we do see as the airship project irons out its problems makes up for it, and there's a meditative tone to those lengthy gazes at the rainforest filling the screen from a hundred feet above it. We do get distracted by the likes of Mark Anthony's pet rooster, but all of this goes towards constructing a deeply sympathetic mood which makes The White Diamond one of Herzog's most humane and moving works. Music by Ernst Reijsiger and Eric Spitzer.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.