Cave of Forgotten Dreams (3D) - Werner Herzog interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
WERNER Herzog talks about his latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which finds him exploring the Chauvet Cave in the south of France, where a series of drawings – found to be 35,000 years old – were discovered among the crystal encrusted limestone.
He discusses presenting his findings in 3D, what the drawings might say about humanity, albino crocodiles and Baywatch references.
Q. As a childhood fan of cave drawings yourself, could you believe your luck when this project first came to you?
Werner Herzog: No, it’s not that I couldn’t believe my luck. I wanted to make the film and it took about a year until the moment came where I had to believe my luck. Of course, French filmmakers wanted to do the film and the French are territorial when it comes to their patrimony. So, why is it that a Bavarian instead of a Frenchman wants to do it? Of course, there were permissions that we had to have from the Ministry of Culture, from the government, from the Association of Scientists. Each one of them could have said ‘no’ and it wouldn’t have happened. So, it was a fairly complex procedure and it was only when I had all these permits I could say: “Yes, I’m very lucky.” But I didn’t just feel lucky. I knew I was competent to do it and I knew I was the right one.
Q. So what was your first impression when you saw these drawings for the first time?
Werner Herzog: Well, you can’t really describe it… something awesome, just awesome. But it wasn’t only the paintings that were such a deep surprise… the real surprise was the beauty of the cave. Nobody prepared me for that… these crystal cathedrals in stalactites and stalagmites. And the other surprise was the amount of skeletal remains inside the cave… about 4,000 bones and skulls of cave bears that were extinct by now. You have footprints, almost fresh footprints, of an animal cave bear that have been extinct for 15,000 years.
Q. Is it humbling to be in the presence of something like that?
Werner Herzog: Not humbling, it’s just that you are confronted with abysses of time that are, in a way, unfathomable. You see a painting in charcoal of let’s say a reindeer and it was left unfinished and somebody else finished it. But through radio carbon dating we know that the next one completed the painting 5,000 years later [laughs]. You’re just blown away by the notion of passage of time. We have no relationship to that kind of depth of time.
Q. Why did you decide to shoot in 3D?
Werner Herzog: It was kind of imperative with all the drama of bulges and niches that were used by the artists to form their paintings. It was obvious I had to do it in 3D, even though I’m not a great advocate of 3D filming. When you look at all my films so far I wouldn’t have liked to do any of them in 3D.
Q. How did you find using 3D? What kind of challenges did it present?
Werner Herzog: When you move closer to an object you have to reconfigure your camera, so inside a dark cave, on a 60cm wide walkway, we had to very quickly build a new type of camera where the eyes would move closer together and then you even started to squint. So, this is a high precision, mechanical sort of procedure. Since we were only allowed six days and four hours in each day you really had to be fast and know what you are doing.
Q. The paintings and painters have been described by some as comparable to the work of great artists like Picasso. Do you share that view?
Werner Herzog: Not entirely, and we have to speculate now because we do not know. Maybe the paintings were meant to be pieces of art, which I would place some question mark behind. Maybe it was some sort of cult, or had some religious connotation surrounding it. Maybe it was somebody who drew a lion for target shooting. We just do not know. But when you speak about Picasso, what is interesting is that there is one painting among all the animals depicted… a partial depiction of the lower part of a female body, partially embraced by a bison. It’s a very mysterious, strange picture on a piece of rock but as strange as it is over tens of thousands of years of time all of a sudden, in the art of Pablo Picasso, you have the same motif – the Minotaur and the female. And, of course, Picasso died way before the Chauvet Cave was discovered. So, somehow there must be a distant echo coming through the ages at us and we don’t know how!
Q. There’s a nice line in comedy throughout the film, especially in your interviews and observations. The Baywatch reference springs to mind…
Werner Herzog: Again, a motif like the Minotaur and the female. The depiction of the human body which was pointing at something basic… the survival of the human race, to fertility, sexuality and, of course, these little statuettes – the Venuses – are absolutely voluptuous and you see it until today and beyond Baywatch.
Q. I can’t imagine you tuning in for Baywatch. Did you watch it?
Werner Herzog: Barely ever… but in a way it always amazes me because we have to recognise it as the most internationally successful TV series ever! So, there must be a resonance world-wide within the entire human race to voluptuous blondes running in bikinis.
Q. When did you find out about the albino crocodiles?
Werner Herzog: Late during the filming and I just dropped by because it was en route to something. I didn’t even know there were some albinos there. The film goes completely bonkers at that point, during the post-script. It’s like we are entering pure science fiction fantasy. But it’s not just for the sake of that fantasy, it has to do with our perception and the perception of the people at that time, 32,000 years ago. We cannot reconstruct it – we do not know. Of course, we can describe our perception but what is going to happen in 20 generations from now? And how would albino crocodiles see it if they expand all the way to Chauvet Cave [laughs]? In fact, reality is much wilder than my science fiction fantasies. Not long ago, six crocodiles escaped and there was a big crocodile hunt, including helicopters, and one is still at large! It’s beautiful [laughs]!
Q. A lot of critics have compared Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a natural progression for you from Encounters At The End of the World. Do you see that? You do seem to be taking viewers to parts of the world they could never hope to see with your documentaries especially…
Werner Herzog: Maybe but it’s kind of a coincidence. It doesn’t have so much to do with locations such as Antarctica and the Chauvet Cave. It’s more looking deep into the essence of what we are and trying to describe the human condition. And, of course, what we see in Chauvet Cave is rather like the awakening of the modern human soul… or I should be more cautious – I would say the awakening of modern human culture. Because Neanderthal men who still rode the landscape parallel to the people who did these paintings didn’t have culture. There’s no evidence of culture, no symbolic depiction, no evidence of music, no evidence of sculptures, no evidence of religious beliefs. Burials, for example, were apparently some sort of ceremony in the cave – but again, we have to speculate.
Q. So, what do you think of modern culture? How do you think it’s progressing?
Werner Herzog: [Laughs] Well, we would need 48 hours! You can’t toss that at me. I have to throw it right back at you. What can I say? I just want to make one tiny little side remark. When you look at the paintings at Chauvet Cave, they’re not primitive or like children’s little scribbles, it bursts on the scene fully accomplished and when you look through the faces of cultural history, art history, it has never gotten any better.
Q. How do you decide which subjects you’re going to tackle for your documentaries?
Werner Herzog: I do whatever pushes me hardest. It’s coming at me and I try to… it’s like uninvited guest and I have to wrestle them out the door or through the window – get them out and get over with them quickly.
Q. When you look back on your career, then, which are your proudest achievements? Or do you prefer to keep looking forward?
Werner Herzog: Well, I like all my films so I cannot say which is the proudest achievement.
Q. Do you think that one day a documentary could be made on your life?
Werner Herzog: No, because I will not allow it! But there are, of course, some, like Burden of Dreams, for example, where Les Blank, a fine American filmmaker, made a film during the few weeks that he witnessed on the set of Fitzcarraldo. But on my life, you can wait until you are old and grey because you will not see it.
Q. Is that because you would like to keep things private?
Werner Herzog: Because there are things that are life and there are things that are film and I’m capable of separating it.
Q. When can we expect to see your Death Row documentary?
Werner Herzog: Well, I finished shooting and I’ve just started editing. It could be ready in a couple of months.
Q. I gather you’ve recently leant your voice to The Simpsons?
Werner Herzog: That, in fact, is my apotheosis in American popular culture. Of course, in a way, people started to like my voice from my commentaries. I think I do them quite alright. I don’t care whether there’s an accent in it and it can’t get any worse! It doesn’t really matter. There is something authentic there, there is something credible there and there is something that is distinct from other voices. There is this film, Plastic Bag, where I do the voice of the plastic bag. I was in another cartoon series, The Boondocks and I’ve been acting more than in earlier years, as a paid actor.
Q. How are you enjoying that?
Werner Herzog: I like it because I know I’m good, but only in… let’s say I’m always good when it comes to hostile, dysfunctional, violent, debased characters [laughs]!