A superb portrait of the dangers as well as euphoria that can come from chasing one’s most treasured dreams, Werner Herzog’s The White Diamond vividly encapsulates nearly all of the director’s recurring thematic obsessions: adventurers plagued by past tragedies; the beguiling beauty of the untamed wilderness; the sacredness of the world’s age-old mysteries; and contemporary man’s simultaneously harmonious and dissonant connection to nature. Herzog’s doc follows Dr. Graham Dorrington, a University of London professor and scientist, into the depths of the Guyana jungle, where he’s committed to recording the Amazon canopy around the towering Kaieteur Falls from on high in a self-designed, balloon-suspended airship described by a local Rastafarian named Mark Anthony as a “white diamond.” The moniker is apt considering the area’s local diamond mining industry, though as Herzog’s journey develops, what results isn’t simply a vision of modernity coming into close contact with the ancient Earth but also a tale of spiritual desolation and attempted atonement involving Dr. Dorrington’s all-consuming guilt over the death of nature cinematographer (and admired friend) Dieter Plage during a similar expedition in 1992.
Dorrington’s unbridled fascination with flight, as well as his dogged desire to lay his traumatic past to rest, intimately link him with Dieter Dengler of Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly. And in the same way, both men’s relentless daredevil spirits are in tune with that of Herzog himself, a brash cinematic explorer whose embroidered narration (both touching and comically affected), intrusion into Dorrington’s story (such as when he demands to be part of an early flight test) and canny ability to effortlessly tie seemingly disparate narrative asides (such as Anthony’s loving relationship with a pet rooster) to his larger thematic preoccupations are alternately amusing and mesmerizing. Like Fitzcarraldo, the brash, occasionally irresponsible Dorrington storms the uninhibited jungle with a team of natives tasked with toiling on a seemingly foolhardy vehicular endeavor. Yet rather than seeking dominion over the cruel, unpredictable environment, Dorrington – recognizing the futility of trying to impose order on an inherently chaotic world – instead looks to achieve accord with his surroundings, an enterprise visualized by Herzog via the floating airship’s serene reflection in a river’s surface and the sight of Dorrington and Anthony lying face-down on a precarious cliff, their relaxed bodies seeming to commune with the rocky soil below.
Herzog’s ethereal and reverential cinematography is awash in gorgeous imagery, from a vision of the Kaieteur Falls reflected in a drop of water to that of Dorrington’s airship gently grazing a river before resuming its levitating journey. Yet the tale’s overwhelming majesty is derived not only from these stunning compositions but also from Herzog’s curiosity about the way in which daring ambitions such as Dorrington’s lifelong affinity for flight – which cost him two fingers during a rocket accident as a teenager – hold the promise for both irreparable catastrophe as well as exhilarating joy. The film conveys the romantic allure of intrepid investigation of the world’s entrancing unknowns – such as the contents of a fabled cave behind the Falls that Herzog films with the help of a rock climber, only to refuse us access to the footage as a means of perpetuating the power of myth – while capturing the blend of courageousness, recklessness and desperation that fuels Dorrington’s airborne quest for salvation from his inescapable torment. Rapturous and haunting, The White Diamond finds Herzog once again journeying into a geographical and emotional heart of darkness, and returning with a quasi-mystical masterpiece.