April 8, 2011, The Wall Street Journal
Werner Herzog admits he’s a “skeptic” of 3-D movies, but he made a concession with his new film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a 3-D documentary that takes a wide-eyed tour inside the Chauvet Cave in France, whose vast limestone walls are emblazoned with animal paintings more than 30,000 years old—the oldest ever discovered.
Because the cave is accessible only to scientists, Mr. Herzog had to acquire special permission from the French government to film inside and had to adjust to extreme time and technical limitations, using a crew of only four.
What the veteran filmmaker, 70, discovered inside was a world of subterranean splendor, namely cave paintings in pristine condition—Ice Age menageries of rhinos, lions, mammoths, bison and cave bears, amid glistening lunar-like surfaces.
Mr. Herzog, whose career straddles both features and documentaries, narrates “Forgotten Dreams” with his signature blend of philosophical, humorous and grandiloquent commentary, adding a layer of curious depth to the images.
The film, opening April 29 in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, then other cities, isn’t just for art house audiences. Children can appreciate its riches, said Mr. Herzog from his Los Angeles home: “You do not need to be an intellectual to be in complete awe at what you are seeing.”
The Wall Street Journal: What was so special about this subject that you decided to shoot in 3-D?
Mr. Herzog: As normal, thinking people we assume that paintings on the wall are fairly flat. But when I was checking out the cave for the first time without any cameras it was immediately clear that it would be imperative to shoot in 3-D, because it’s all limestone in the cave, a drama of formations, bulges and niches and protrusions and pendants. And all of this was utilized by the artists 32,000 years ago. A bulge would be the neck of a bison charging at you. A niche would serve as a place where a shy horse would look out. So it was really, really clear that it had to be 3-D.
What drew you to the cave in the first place?
In a way, cave paintings are where my own intellect and fascinations began. When I was 12 or 13 I saw a book about cave paintings in the display window of a bookstore. And it was just staggering, so striking to see this. There was a horse and it said “Paleolithic paintings,” and I really wanted to have this book, but I couldn’t buy it. I worked for months as a ball boy on tennis courts. Each week I would sneak by the store and see if the book was still there. I was afraid somebody else would buy it. Finally I bought it in this kind of awe. Looking at these paintings in that book is still in me. I actually explained this to the French minister of culture. That was one of my arguments why I had to make the movie and not a French director.
Was there any contest of what was most beautiful to you in the cave? There’s so much there—the crystal formations, the stalagmites, the ancient animal bones on the floor and the paintings themselves.
It’s interesting that you’re mentioning it, because when you enter the cave the first thing that’s most unexpected is the beauty of the cave: the crystal cathedrals, the stalactites and stalagmites, the bones—exactly the sequence in which you describe it. It’s stunning. Four thousand skulls of extinct cave bears, rib cages, vertebrae. And then you have the almost fresh footprints of the cave bears, though you know they went extinct 20,000 years ago. The freshness is so stunning, so fresh that you think that somebody is looking at you from the dark. But for me, it would be the lions that are most beautiful. A whole group of lions is stalking something. We do not know what exactly. Their eyes are exactly aligned. Every single lion is crouching and sneaking and stalking something. The intensity of this panel is incredible.
How does this movie fit into your body of work thematically?
I thought about this because right now I am finishing this film “Death Row” with death-row inmates, which will be a 90-minute or two-hour film. But I have material of such intensity that I will also make what I call in quotes a “mini-series” of films based on singular cases. And I thought about what the title might be of the mini-series. It dawned on me that it would be something that would also fit the cave film: “Gazing Into the Abyss.” The cave film is really looking deep into the origins of the modern human soul, looking into the dark recesses of time, where time becomes unfathomable. There is an abyss of time, an abyss of the human soul. And in “Death Row,” wherever you look, you look into an abyss, an abyss of the human condition. It’s a theme you can see in many of my films, such as “Aguirre.” It doesn’t mean it has to be a dark gaze into it. Sometimes you look into the wonderful, joyful side like in “Bad Lieutenant,” where you have the bliss of evil.
You’re an extremely fast filmmaker, a lot like Woody Allen.
Woody Allen is like a snail. He makes a film a year. I make two to three films a year.
How do you do it?
I make fast decisions. I know what I want to do. Projects are pushing me so hard that you can’t even believe it. I have to wrangle them, like home invasion. How do you get the burglars out of your home, how do you get them on the screen? I edit digitally and you can edit almost as fast as you are thinking. Many of my colleagues lose themselves in the possibilities. They create 22 parallel versions and can’t decide which one is the best. I just do one and do it straightaway with all the urgency of the material.