Wellspring has repackaged two of their single disc Werner Herzog films for this Essential Directors Series boxed set release. The only difference here is the packaging - everything inside the box is identical to the single disc releases of White Diamond and The Wheel Of Time that came out a few years back.
Graham Dorrington is a London-base aeronautics specialist who has spent the last few years of his life designing and building an airship. Not a plane or a helicopter but an airship - basically a zeppelin. His reasoning is that airplanes are too loud, whereas with an airship, you can fly with virtually no noise pollution at all. Dorrington has made some interesting alterations to his project. He's replaced the hydrogen that was used in older blimps like the Hindenburg with helium, making it a much safer vehicle and he's scaled things down to such an extent that it's really only suitable for carrying two people.
Dorrington explains to us how the first time he tried to sale the ship, his cinematographer, Dieter Plage, became lodged in a tree when the airship malfunctioned. A few members of the crew attempted a rescue but Plage fell from the tree and died from the injuries he incurred. As such, Dorrington has some issues with this project but he is bound and determined to successfully fly the airship over the jungle canopy of Guyana and to finish the project he and Plage started. As Dorrington and Herzog set out to the jungles with a small team, they struggle with some mechanical difficulties and with Dorrington's personal issues but they eventually get the airship working and capture some truly breathtaking footage. Along the way the film discusses a mysterious cave behind a massive waterfall and we learn the interesting story of Marc Anthony Yhap, a Guyana native who works as a member of Dorrington's crew. Yhap describes the airship as a 'white diamond' which in turn gives the film its name.
Like many of Herzog's best films, fiction and non-fiction alike, White Diamond is a fascinating mix of stunning nature footage, wild camera work, and eccentric, quirky personalities. While the film starts off as a simple look at Dorrington's work it soon becomes an exploration of his obsession, almost as much a personality piece as anything else. Herzog has no problem letting the film stray from the central focus when he feels it will be of interest. It's for that reason that we hear about Yhap's family, how he's the only one left in Guyana while the rest have gone to Europe and fallen out of touch with him. We see how Yhap lives alone, save for his rooster, 'Red Man,' who lives his life chasing the five hens who make up his harem. Along the same lines we're treated to some remarkable footage of a young native man break-dancing on a ledge that is dangerously close to the edge of the waterfall.
We learn that the natives consider the cave behind the wall to be sacred ground and while Herzog sends a man down on a rope to film the area, he doesn't actually show us that footage, instead choosing to let the mystery remain. The film winds up meandering a bit but it's never dull and always visually stunning. From the footage of the cranky old rooster chasing a hen to the footage of the gorgeous jungle canopy shot from the cockpit of the airship, White Diamond is pure Herzog through and through. It documents man's struggle against the elements and it splits off into a few bizarre but fascinating directions but like much of the director's work it's wonderful to watch, even if it's hard to understand why that is.
Wheel Of Time:
In Bodh Gaya, India, thousands of Buddhist have gathered together for 'The Kalachakra' (which, in English, translates to time wheel). Supervised by the Dalai Lama himself, this initiation ceremony allows the monks who take part in it to move ahead in their studies. Held on the location where they believe Buddha himself received his first enlightenment, it is one of the biggest events in the Buddhist religion and it draws loyal Buddhists from all over the world.
Herzog took his crew to India to film the ceremony and along the way met some interesting characters including a monk who spent three years of his life walking to Bodh Gaya just to attend the ceremony. Why did it take so long? Because after every step he took he would kneel and bow. The man's body has paid the price for his devotion, however. He has a massive wound on his forehead and his hands and knees are virtually mangled. We also witness a group of monks who build a massive piece of art out of sand one colored grain at a time. They work at this non-stop and it takes weeks to complete. Once it's finished, the art is destroyed and the sand tossed into the river from where it came. Herzog even manages to bring a camera along on a rare chance to interview the Dalai Lama himself.
Eventually the masses of devout Buddhists who have traveled from far and near to attend the Kalachakra are hit with some bad news - the Dalai Lama proclaims that the ceremony has to be postponed for a year and that it will not finish until the follows reconnect in Austria of all places.
Like all good Herzog movies, Wheel Of Time features a bevy of beautiful scenes and images. The sheer quantity of people who descend upon the area for the ceremony is impressive in and of itself but when you add to that the colors and tones of the area in which it all plays out you're left with a very visually impressive film. Herzog's narration, which usually serves to put his documentary films into context, is surprisingly sparse here and instead he lets the pictures and interviews tell the story. That said, without that context to work within, the picture doesn't have as much focus as others have had. Not Herzog's best film by any stretch but regardless, Wheel Of Time is as beautifully shot as you'd expect and it definitely has enough 'Herzog moments' in its running time to make it worth a look.
Both films are presented in their original 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratios, though sadly neither transfer has been properly flagged for progressive scan playback. White Diamond looks excellent, combing issues aside, as the image is nice and sharp and the colors look quite bold, particularly the greens that make up the jungle canopy and the whites of the rushing waterfall. Wheel Of Time, on the other hand, doesn't look quite as good. The colors are a little bit flat and the picture is a little bit on the soft side. It doesn't look terrible by any stretch but at the same time it could have looked better.
White Diamond and Wheel Of Time both arrive on DVD in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Herzog narrates both of the films in English. There are no subtitles included aside from a few spots in Wheel Of Time where burned in English subtitles translate for some of the monks speak on camera. Sound quality is pretty similar for both discs. Herzog's narration is clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. Sometimes the background noise in the films can creep a little higher into the mix than you might want but it never overpowers the narration or the score for either picture.
Both discs in the set contain the same text biography of Herzog in addition to trailers for other Wellspring DVD releases, animated menus and chapter stops. Sadly, there are no commentary tracks or interviews here, which is a shame as Herzog has proven time and again that he's just as interesting as the subjects that he films.
This simple repackaging of two older catalogue titles brings nothing new to the table so if you're already the proud owner of the single discs, you can safely skip this package. That said, if you don't already own them and consider yourself a fan of Herzog specifically or documentary filmmaking in general, both of these movies hold up quite well and prove to be fascinating in that strange, uniquely Herzogian manner. The man blends sound and vision like no one else and has created, with these two pictures, a pair of completely worthwhile and engrossing pictures. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.