Anyone who has seen Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God will immediately recognize the images of the German director's latest film The White Diamond, a documentary that was also filmed in the lush jungle of Guyana.
In this documentary, the forest looms as a haunting presence, a backdrop appropriate to the story of loss, tragedy and eventual victory.
The story that Herzog has focused on is the work of a mildly eccentric British aeronautic engineer, Graham Dorrington, who has invented an airship that resurrects the design of early 20th-century zeppelins on a smaller scale to create a craft capable of hovering at the level of the jungle canopy at slow speeds and in relative silence.
His objectives for the creation are to allow deeper research into the diverse flora of the forest canopy, a potential biotechnology goldmine. On watching Dorrington's wide-eyed, breathless presentations of his aircraft, however, one develops the sneaking sense that he is primarily interested in aviation in its own right.
That ambition is clearly a source of immense motivation for Dorrington, yet it is also the reason for his deep sadness, as a similar design of the craft shown in the film had been used 10 years earlier in Sumatra and resulted in the tragic death of his friend, Dieter Plage.
The German cinematographer fell to his death in what was an unavoidable accident unrelated to any design flaw on Dorrington's part. Nevertheless, the professor bears his sorrow over the death quite openly. The experiments with the new craft, it seems, are an attempt to surmount that pain and loss and, perhaps, bring some meaning to Plage's death.
On site in Guyana, Herzog stumbles upon a parallel story of loss and longing in the character of local Rastafarian Mark Anthony, a diamond miner who is a hired hand in the professor's project. Anthony quietly and placidly reveals to Herzog the story of the loss of his family -- eight brothers, two sisters and his mother -- who have all emigrated to Spain and who he wishes to see more than anything else.
As Anthony watches the professor undertake test flights of the craft, he muses how he would like to fly the craft over the Atlantic Ocean and land on his family's roof in Malaga, Spain, and say to them, "Hello, I am home." Ultimately, there are two heroes in the film, Dorrington and Anthony. Dorrington overcomes his ghosts and past failures by fine-tuning his craft and successfully flying it around the jungle canopy with Herzog, who comes along for the ride to film.
Anthony, meanwhile, presents a figure of strength and perseverance, as well as deep wisdom. At one point, when Herzog poses an unusually banal question to him, Anthony flatly replies, "I cannot hear you for the thunder that you are," effectively brushing off the director. He is clearly deeply appreciated by the crew for his composure and his optimism in the face of hardship. Finally, he's offered a ride, after which he comments that his only regret was that his pet rooster wasn't able to join him.
As in Aguirre, the jungle offers up some spectacular images that, when accompanied by the eerie soundtrack, compound a sense of mystery and foreboding. The tone raises the suspense of the film, as we are gradually told of the details of Plage's death and begin to fear a possible repeat of the tragedy with the new craft.