Any day in which I’m able to step into the gaze path of extreme, globe-trotting seeker-of-otherworldliness Werner Herzog—like a matinee dreamer transfixed in a projector’s beam—is a day well lived. Having emerged from his new German cinema heyday as one of the world’s most guileless and original documentary filmmakers, Herzog has slowly been crafting a four-dimensional fresco of the planet, its most human-resistant landscapes, and our dubious dramas in confronting the chaos. A few more pieces fall into place this spring and summer, when no less than three Herzog docs will hit stateside theaters; the second to be finished, The White Diamond, is the assault’s contemplative first movement. As has become his protocol, Herzog attaches himself and his camera to an obsessive on a mission—this time, it’s Brit aeronautics expert Graham Dorrington, a manic showman determined to perfect and fly a newly designed airship over the jungle canopy of Guyana. Dorrington is still racked with guilt, you see, over the death of a cinematographer-colleague a decade earlier, from a similar vessel; this new one will vindicate the project, the vision, and the wobbly-eyed doctor.
The ship itself is Herzog’s ringer—a mini-zeppelin shaped like a cartoon whale or, as the crew sees it, a giant, white teardrop diamond on its side, floating through the tropical mists and around (not recklessly over) the Kaieteur waterfall. The crescendo-scored images of this oddly antique anomaly huffing above the wild landscape is undistilled Herzog; the interviews are less so until the director finds Mark Anthony Yhap, a for-hire Rasta whose oblique murmurings provide the film with a kind of unmodulated antidote to Dorrington’s self-important burble. Yhap is seen as the more authentic figure (Herzog has always preferred native wisdom to educated knowledge, and clearly considers his films a form of mythic culture), but how aware is Herzog that this wily Guyanese may be playing him for a white, European fool? Does it matter? Never afraid to indulge in what he calls “dignified stupidities,” Herzog is a nonjudgmental guide, entranced by mysteries that should not be solved. When the expedition’s physician-mountain climber rappels down and photographs the monstrous and unknown cavern behind the falls—the “secret kingdom of the swifts”—Herzog decides to obey the local Indians’ legends and and not include the footage. We’ll never know if it was worth seeing; instead of a potential disappointment, now we have a myth regained.