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Arts & Culture Film, Theatre & TV

The Werner Herzog Season in London

  • February 12, 2024
  • 5 min read
The Werner Herzog Season in London

The White Diamond (2006) is one of Werner Herzog’s overlooked documentaries. Seen previously on BBC TV in Britain, also in Germany, and Japan, the documentary loses nothing on this big BFI screen outing. Gaining epic proportions when shown in widescreen, while played-out in digital stereo at BFI Southbank as a part of January’s satisfyingly thorough Werner Herzog film season. February’s screenings of Werner Herzog films and documentaries are available at Cine Lumiere, Picture House, Barbican Cinemas, and Bertha Doc House.

The film concerns an eccentric aeronautic engineer, a blimp balloon designer, by the name of Dr Michael Dorrington. A man intent on taking his fish-shaped white air balloon to Guyana to fly it over the Amazon Rainforest. A part of his on-going quest to find medicinal flora and fauna. This is tempered with threaded memories of a fateful previous expedition where Dorrington’s explorer doppelgänger-cameraman (a former colleague of Herzog’s) lost his life in a balloon crash. This served as a warning to the curious Herzog, who, in his capacity as producer, ensured that safety measures were fully undertaken. Nevertheless, this would later be negated when Herzog insisted on being the second passenger onboard the second test flight, albeit supported by a back-up team holding guy ropes.

A local Rastafarian, Yhap, a diamond miner, becomes Dorrington’s spiritual companion. He stares at the balloon and likens it to a magical shining ‘white diamond’, unwittingly giving the film its title.

His reward is a flight in the balloon, which is undercut by his regret that the main love of his life had not been there with him. This love interest turned out to be none other than a cockerel with five chickens as his wives. Here Herzog’s dry humour is defined, “I had to meet this legendary cockerel”. Meeting the mystical cockerel Herzog follows it around with a camera, while it runs off.

The film’s inner strength is, however, Herzog’s on-going preoccupation with the elemental aspects of our planet. Not least the highest and most magnificent waterfall in the South American continent. This is amplified when one of his film crew descends halfway down the waterfall, suspended only by a single rope. In a death defying stunt, he attempts to film the cave behind it. Thousands of swallows fly in and out, like a swirling tornado, almost usurping the actual splendour of this cascading waterfall. The spectacle literally hypnotises the audience. This is bettered, quite unbelievably, by an upside down reflection of the waterfall, captured in a raindrop. A big close-up shot. The droplet hangs from a leaf, disintegrating the reflection as it falls. Stunning.

By returning to the South American jungle Herzog, once again, recalls the themes that he explored in the latter half of the 1970’s and early 1980’s with Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Since those far-off times, Herzog’s documentary output has overshadowed his later feature films. These authored documentaries are vastly superior In 2024 Herzog shows no sign of stopping. Here I will leave my final line to Andrew O’Hehir of salon.com from May 25th 2006,

“With these poetic, deliberately digressive, quasi-documentaries, I think that Herzog has found the form that justifies his secular quest for spiritual transcendence”.

Long may that ‘quest’ continue.

The White Diamond Streams at Blue Yonder online.

https://www.newyonder.earth/asset/whitediamond

Lessons of Darkness screened on Tuesday the 16th of January in NFT 3 in its full widescreen and surround sound version. A full house sat transfixed. With the Middle East in total crisis. This timely screening of Werner Herzog’s 1992 documentary on the postscript of the 1991 war in Kuwait resonates with a punch.

Lessons In Darkness (cited scenes)

In Lessons of Darkness we see the aftermath of a scorched earth policy. Lakes of crude oil stretch out for endless miles as the oil fields burn. They belch-out acrid smoke on a nuclear scale. We float through dense clouds of billowing smoke, courtesy of the helicopter with a gyroscopic-camera attached to it. It is as if we have entered Dante’s Inferno. The nightmare landscape is unrecognisable. As Herzog himself said to author Paul Cronin in his book Herzog On Herzog, “The film plays out as if the entire planet is burning away, and because there is music throughout the whole film, I call it a requiem for an uninhabitable planet!”which ‘we’ ourselves have destroyed.

A key scene precedes the above. The brutalism of the military is explained by a young single Kuwaiti mother. She tells of her scolding Iraqi troops as she witnessed a soldier stamping his heavy jackboots on the head of her 6 year old son. Her traumatised little boy lost the power of speech as a result. Scared still, he nestles into his mother’s arms.

This is all so redolent of the hellishly cruel ideology of the political classes. Those who always peddle a sanctimonious faux morality in order to justify force in times of war. The very politicians, internationally, who remain in denial and never complicit. The warmongers who are truly our very enemy within. Rulers who do not actually represent half of any nation anywhere. Countries that ‘they’ claim to speak for. Just like British political authoritarians peddling war. Our collective enemy. These smug entitled Ruling Classes globally. The architects of a potential World War 3. One that is on the brink of igniting right now, with the broken Middle East at its actual epicentre.

Herzog’s film Lesson of Darkness is his metaphor for armageddon. Everyone who reads this review needs to watch this film.

A brand new Werner Herzog documentary Werner Herzog Radical Dreamer is on wide release at cinemas now and on BFI Player

Along with a remastered version of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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