2004; directed by Werner Herzog; 87 mins
[Sorry the trailer’s in German, that is the only trailer I could find]
In lieu of There Will Be Blood (because my DVD was shagged), the 100th review on Reading Films will be of my second favourite Herzog film – after 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. A neglected documentary, released thirteen years ago and never mentioned except in passing in any retrospective of the director. This, I think, is his most positive, heartwarming and emotionally fulfilling film.
Herzog focuses on Dr. Graham Dorrington, an English aeronautical engineer who has, for many years, been developing a small airship which is more spherical (or teardrop-shaped) rather than oblong in design for greater maneuverability. It is being created in order for botanists and filmmakers to better study the jungle canopy. Dorrington and his team travel, with Herzog and crew in tow, to the rainforest of Guyana, setting up near Kaieteur Falls.
Over the course of the documentary, the team face various setbacks, malfunctions, bad weather and disagreements, whilst Herzog explores the local flora and fauna, including the Rastafarian team members from the nearby settlement and the waterfall itself, which is home to a species of Swift and behind which, supposedly, no human had seen until the documentary crew themselves showed up. Throughout this, a tragedy in Dorrington’s past rears it’s head and becomes an emotional focal point for the whole mission.
What sets this apart from a lot of the director’s work is the cast of characters he finds, who seem to uncover a softer side to Herzog, a man who believes that the overriding attitude of the universe is one of “chaos, hostility and murder“. Through them, we see that he does have great affection for people despite (and with) all their faults. The sight of Marc Anthony Yhap, a team member (did I hear them say; “eighteen”?!), sat smoking a fag on a see-thru inflatable chair in the middle of the rainforest is an image you won’t find from any other director. Certainly not shot with such curiosity and love.
Also, in Dorrington, we find a man who, at first, when showing us around his laboratory in England, may well be an expert but a bit of an idiot too. However, by peeling back the layers and slowly revealing Dorrington’s heartbreak and guilt over the death of his late collaborator, Dieter Plage, we see a seemingly simple fact-finding escapade turned into a cleansing of the soul.
Henning Brümmer and Klaus Scheurich‘s cinematography is utterly stunning, giving us some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring shots amidst a filmography already chock-full of awe. The balloons floating into the downdraft of the falls or the falls themselves viewed upside down through a droplet of water (mirroring the White Diamond and it’s purpose, perhaps) are images that should be in a gallery.
Intriguingly, the film is also notable for something it doesn’t show: what’s behind the waterfall. Dr. Wilk, the film crew’s medic abseils off a nearby cliff to get a look-in and they decide to lower a camera down there, recording what they see. Upon interviewing a local historian, he reveals that because no one has seen behind the falls, many legends and interpretations have sprung up that are deeply ingrained into the local culture. He states that to show the world that footage would stamp a final answer on it and thus diminish their cultural tenets. Herzog then decides not to ever show the footage. Similar to his decision never to play the audio of Grizzly Man, Timothy’s Treadwell’s final moments in a bear attack, this shows the director’s deep, deep respect for the places he goes. Despite his constant search for the dark heart of this world we live in, he knows that there is a fine line between investigation and salaciousness. He may push his subjects to the limit – for example, having prison escapee Dieter Dengler reenact his forced marches through the Vietnamese jungles – but he understands where that limit is and not to go over it. He takes them right up to the bit.
The music, courtesy of Ernst Reijseger and Eric Spitzer, is the perfect accompaniment to the visions of mighty natural beauty that the airship allows. Together, you have a rare instance of the one complementing the other, each elevating the moment in a harmonious composition of sight and sound. Made extra special by the fact of it’s being a documentary, that much sidelined of movie types. Also, aided by the fact that no one had really seen the jungle canopy like that before, so as the camera glides across the treetops and catches a frog gingerly creeping amongst the leaves, the music is announcing and celebrating this leap in our knowledge, this discovery!
At this point, it seems necessary to acknowledge the efforts of editor and regular Herzog collaborator, Joe Bini. His way of holding onto the shots and eking all the goodness out of each selected cut is a fine example of how editing is as much about keeping the scissors away from the celluloid as it is mowing through it for maximum momentum.
All of this is way of saying that, where Herzog’s films (more often than not) are searching for “ecstatic truth” and looking into the hearts of men – usually coming up with somewhat dark hypotheses, he has many people he clearly dearly loves. Here, more than any other films of his I’ve seen (fourteen and still only a fraction of his work), does that quality shine through.
Nowhere more does it do so than with Marc Anthony: the team member, weather recorder, rooster lover and quiet, thoughtful appreciator of Dorrington’s endeavours. Whenever possible, the film disappears off from the main action to follow Marc Anthony as he searches for curative plants, feeds his prized rooster or whatever. What does Herzog see in this man? I will not speculate because I wouldn’t presume to be able to understand the level on which he appreciates things. It is enough that we know that he, lifelong chronicler of madness and evil, sees good in this world.