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Heroic stupidity

The new documentary of Werner Herzog, "The White Diamond", reviewed by Dietmar Kammerer

In Werner Herzog's most recent adventure in the rain forest, a ship is carried through a jungle, but this time it's a airship. Broken down into its component parts, it is no more than crates containing poles, motors, cladding, electronics plus a dozen or so bottles of helium. Put together, they make a Zeppelin: small, but as is so often the case with Herzog, reflecting a much bigger dream, or better, the greatest "vision".

So it is in Herzog's Cosmos. A human accomplishment, a technical exertion, a great rebellion, when broken down into the individual parts of its means and purpose, looks like a fully rational undertaking. When it's mounted together and leaves the ground, something new comes into being: the view from above, the victory of the wonderful and unheard-of over the gravity of the usual.

For the engineer and inventor Graham Dorrington, developing the helium powered mini-Zeppelin was not the "conquest of uselessness" but rather four years of head scratching, drafting and trial runs in a wind tunnel. Once in service, the fragile flying apparatus was supposed to help explore the treetops of the rainforest, the largest and most diverse bio-reserve of the planet. To reach those places that bipedal and wingless man would otherwise never see and where biologists and pharmacists expect to find numerous undiscovered forms of plant and life. An expression of the spirit of practical reason and yet - how could it be otherwise - an insane scheme. Because everything can go wrong and of course Herzog is only interested in the slippery side, the slope of the whole project, the "genius" in the "engineer".

The film begins strangely, like a program of the aeronautical industry, with archival footage from the black and white pioneer days of air travel, accompanied by Herzog's anxious commentary, an unsophisticated excursus on the "ancient dream to fly" and the understandably "bold air travellers". One is prepared for anything but not expecting much, even in the scenes in Dorrington's workshop, when the inventor presents every possible technical tool and hardly has time to draw breath in his excitement to explain. At some point we learn that he blew off three fingers of his left hand at 14, when he wanted to become an astronaut.

Suddenly, the gutsy Zeppelin-maker is strapping a shiny metal James Bond flying machine onto his back, beaming into the camera, throwing his arms in the air and putting on a crazy grin: "You can realise your dreams! Let's go fly!" For a moment one entertains the possibility that he is about to throw himself into space, before a rolling camera. Instead, something much better happens: conversion, clarification, insight. From that point on, it is here freely admitted, one doesn't want to miss one second of this film. Such an overwhelming mass of enthusiasm resides in this aeronautical pioneer (a little past his time), his sheer propulsive force, that one would follow him anywhere – through the jungle of Guyana for starters.

Then everything comes together: the Zeppelin which, skimming over the roof of the tropical forest does indeed resemble a white diamond; Dorrington's passion – he devotes the project to his best friend, a documentary film maker who died 11 years ago in a crash from the previous model of the airship, and the film itself, which is not in fact a documentary but rather a monumental film that tells of heroic deeds and fates, of things that one can never fully show in pictures.

They have a fragile beauty: like two champagne flutes flying on a balloon more than 200 metres above a waterfall before a gust of wind tears them down. "A sacrifice to the gods of the river," says Herzog, and a sobering test of the action of eddies on the edge of a waterfall. There is silly foolery and there is heroic foolery, the Zeppelin-tinkerer explains.

No question which kind turns Herzog on, which he wants to memorialise. His completely unaffected trip to the edge of embarrassment and then beyond leaves us speechless. Leaving the cinema, only one word remains: wow.

Werner Herzog: "The White Diamond". Documentary. Director: Werner Herzog. Germany 2004, 90 Minutes.


The article was originally published in German in Die Tageszeitung on 10 March, 2005.

Translation: nb.

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