Drifting between documentary and narrative forms, Werner Herzog has made more than 50 films over the course of nearly as many years. His early career was marked by an intense collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski, which most notably produced Aguirre: The Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo. (The madness of shooting the latter was documented in Les Blank’s documentary Burden Of Dreams, and in Herzog’s diary, Conquest Of The Useless: Reflections From The Making Of Fitzcarraldo, translated into English in 2009.) While Herzog’s films often defy easy categorization, they share an untamable, adventurous spirit that drives their subjects to explore a closer relationship with nature.
In the past decade in particular, Herzog has explored his own relationship with nature, from the wilds of Alaska in Grizzly Man to the far reaches of Antarctica in Encounters At The End Of The World. His latest feature documentary (and first in 3-D), Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, documents his journey into the Chauvet cave (discovered in southern France in 1994 by Éliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet), sparked by a childhood fascination with prehistoric cave drawings. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Herzog to discuss the implications of the Chauvet cave discovery, what remnants might be found from our culture thousands of years from now, and the potential for serious 3-D films.
The A.V. Club: How did you first hear about Chauvet cave?
Werner Herzog: Through a producer with whom I did Grizzly Man and the film in Antarctica, Encounters At The End Of The World. He cautiously approached me to see if I would possibly be interested in something like that. He apparently had read the New Yorker article by Judith Thurman, a very thorough and interesting piece on Chauvet cave. I immediately said “Yes, yes, yes!” It had been an early fascination of mine since my adolescence. In fact, the very first independent fascination that only came from me and not from school or family.
AVC: And didn’t that start when you saw the cover of a book of cave drawings?
WH: Yes, it was in a display out of reach. You see, I didn’t dare to walk into the bookstore, and I didn’t have the money to buy it, so I worked as a ball boy at tennis courts for quite a while. I would sneak by every week to check out and pray that nobody had bought the book. Apparently I thought it was the only one. I still have it today, and look at it with sympathy, however, the book is really very mediocre. It’s a very stupid book. I mean, popular science and quite stupid.
AVC: How did you react when you saw the original drawings in the cave?
WH: Even though in a way I knew what was waiting for me because I had seen photos, I was in complete and overwhelming awe. The mysterious origins of it—we don’t know why they were made, and why in complete darkness and not next to the entrance. They painted where it was completely dark. When you look at the bestiary, huge powerful animals, and all of them are practically extinct. Woolly mammoth, woolly rhino, cave lion, cave bears, all extinct.
AVC: And what about the centaur-like horse-man hybrids? They must have sprung from the Neanderthals’ imaginations.
WH: Well, horses are still animals that are roaming around this planet, so we feel more familiar with it. It’s just totally astonishing, and it’s so fresh because the cave was left as a perfect time capsule for tens of thousands of years, because a rock face had collapsed and sealed it off.
AVC: And it was just discovered 16 years ago.
WH: It’s a monumental discovery. I dedicated the film to the three discoverers. In a way, they are the tragic figures in all this, because they thought they had some sort of proprietary rights and right of exploitation if it came to books and other things. They are suing the French states for 15 years now. They have lost every single lawsuit and appeal, and spent all their money.
AVC: What’s the main issue of their suits?
WH: The French states say they do not own [the cave], and that it’s patrimony of all of France and the human race. It’s invaluable, and it’s the origins of the modern human soul. You are not the owner of it. It’s all of us. That’s the bottom line. The lawsuit is more complex. Because of the making of this film, the issue of this “tragic”—and I call it tragic in quotes—situation has changed. The French government has agreed to accept arbitration. It’s not finished yet, but will be sometime.
AVC: How did you gain access to the cave and permission to film there?
WH: It’s a highly complex thing, because the French Minister Of Culture has to agree, the regional government has to agree, and the scientists have to agree, the guardians of the cave. If anyone bails out, you’re not going to go in there. I wrote to all of them, but you have to show up and be credible and speak with angels’ tongues.
AVC: Were they familiar with your films?
WH: I was very lucky that the French Minister Of Culture is a great fan of my films, but it was not that alone. I was really very familiar with cave paintings, not only as a filmmaker, but from a scientific background. I’m a competent filmmaker, let’s face it. Whether you like my films or not, I would at least claim that I’m competent, and I’ve had such an early fascination with cave paintings that has never left me. I knew immediately I was the one to do this, but of course the French can be territorial when it comes to their own patrimony.
AVC: Was there pressure for them to bring in a French director?
WH: Not really, but I know there were others out there who really wanted to do the film, and they were French. I addressed it straight away why I, as a Bavarian, am trying to make this film. I had a proposal to work as an employee of the French Ministry, and I would ask for a fee of one euro. I would return to them a full 3-D film, which they could use for free. They could show it in 30,000 classrooms all over France, and at cultural events and festivals.
AVC: So they had the first access to screen the film?
WH: No, not the first access. Strangely enough, the first ones to screen the film and commercially show it was the Brits, and second, America, on the 29th of April. There was a messy situation about co-producers in France. Unfortunately, I was not involved with that, and now we have a delay in the French release. It’s too complicated to explain, but now we have some glitches. It should have first been shown in France, but it’s okay. The cave does not belong to the French. It belongs to the human race and humankind.
AVC: You ask one of the archeologists in the film what is the quality of being human. Do you think the ability to create art is an intrinsic part of that?
WH: Yes, but humanness is not just a figurative representation in art and sculpture. It’s also, of course, music, and it’s probably a belief system in some powers outside of human beings, whether it’s religious beliefs or something related. It’s interesting to pose this question, because at the same time [Homo sapiens appeared], Neanderthal men roamed the same landscape. They were not extinct yet, and Neanderthal men didn’t have any of that. They didn’t develop culture. I mean, there was material culture, but it’s a little tricky to speak about it, because you need to define what constitutes culture.
AVC: Isn’t that a constantly evolving term?
WH: Let’s not mess with a highly complex term, but it’s evident that we have no figurative representation from Neanderthals, and no real religious belief systems. Why is it that all of a sudden, Homo sapien sapiens burst onto the scene, with everything that we have today as well?
AVC: Aren’t the drawings found in Chauvet cave evidence of some kind of figurative representation?
WH: Yes, but still enshrouded in more mysteries than any answers. It’s such a phenomenal thing that all of a sudden, there’s a cave that’s 17 or 18,000 years older than anything we had seen before. All of a sudden there’s fully accomplished art in there. It’s not just primitive little scribblings or sketches like children would do. It’s absolutely accomplished.
AVC: It makes you wonder what else is out there.
WH: Of course we can speculate there are more caves out there that may never be discovered, or 20,000 years from now, and this makes the discovery so monumental.
AVC: In 20,000 years, could it be our culture that’s discovered in a cave somewhere?
WH: In 20,000 years, there will be significant things in the environment that will be preserved, like certain dams. Like Vajont Dam near Longarone [Italy], where there was this catastrophic event almost 50 years ago now. An incredibly massive landslide came down into the lake. The entire lake, over 50 billion cubic meters, shot up into the air in a tsunami of 700 feet that came down in this gorge and wiped out the town of Longarone. I have studied the place over and over. I do my pilgrimages to the place. At its base, [the dam] is something like a hundred feet thick. The steel-reinforced concrete. The whole thing is about 180 meters at its highest, and it withstood the landslide coming into it. It’s still intact, and most of it will be intact hundreds of thousands of years from now. So in the future, when people are looking for the Neanderthals of the 21st century, they will see our traces standing in open air. They will see the sarcophagus of Chernobyl, which is going to be built over it now. It will be there in 20,000 years. They won’t have to search in a cave.
AVC: Is going to the dam a yearly ritual for you?
WH: I go every four or five years. Whenever I’m not too far away, I love to go there. It was such a monumental folly, and it was foreseen by a geologist who warned and warned, but nobody would pay attention.
AVC: Do you see different details each time you go, or is it more of a meditative experience?
WH: Each time I return, I discover different aspects of it. It’s one of the great human-created catastrophes. It’s going to be a monument for hundreds of thousands of years.
AVC: All of the action in Cave Of Forgotten Dreams happens internally, making it a curious choice for 3-D. Why did you decide to shoot in that format?
WH: The first time I ever entered into the cave, I immediately knew it had to be 3-D. I was allowed for one hour into the cave just to access the technical problems that were out there. I had no camera or photo apparatus with me. It was immediately clear that it was imperative to do it in 3-D, and it’s obvious when you see it. Sounding deep into the abysses of time, and into the origin of the modern human soul. It’s strange, I’m now doing a film with death-row inmates, and as a general umbrella title, I thought about “Gazing Into The Abyss,” and then I thought that would have been a fine title for the cave film. It fits for almost every film I’ve made. BadLieutenant, Aguirre, you just name it.
AVC: Grizzly Man.
WH: Grizzly Man, yes.
AVC: Your new film focuses on the lives of death-row inmates?
WH: They are the centerpieces, but it’s also about the senselessness of crimes, and defense attorneys, prosecutors, victims’ families, and all sorts of things. It’s five films. One is a one-and-a-half-hour film, Death Row. It’s a feature film, which will be out for theatrical release. I’ve interwoven stories with a completely different narrative flow, but I have so much intense material that I decided to make short films on individual cases only. In Gazing Into The Abyss, you have Michael Perry, Joseph Garcia, James Barnes on death row. These will each be one-hour films on TV.
AVC: Would you work in 3-D again at some point?
WH: I would not exclude it. If all the films gave me a billion dollars and asked me to do them again, I wouldn’t do it. None of them should be done in 3-D, the films I’ve done. And the projects that are pushing me now are not 3-D projects either.
AVC: Are you hoping Cave will pave the way for other serious 3-D films?
WH: Roger Ebert has said it’s the only real legitimate 3-D film. I bow my head to him, but it’s not the question of serious films. How do you define serious films? For example, the film industry likes it a lot, and audiences seem to like it. You cannot pirate 3-D films, which is a great advantage for distribution and for the industry. That is serious. There’s also serious stuff out there, and legitimate serious arguments. I can’t really deal with this notion of serious films. When you look at Avatar, in a way, it furthers the story because the story depends on the fireworks, the Fourth Of July fireworks.
AVC: What were the particular challenges of shooting in 3-D for you?
WH: I was only aware that editing had to be different than what you see in action films, because if you have one perspective of a wider angle and then you cut quickly in rapid succession and cut into closer shots, the eye and the brain need some time to absorb the new 3-D perspective. I do believe that 3-D action movies of the future need a different type of editing. They transpose 2-D action movies into 3-D, and it makes you dizzy. The audiences have their problems with that aspect of it.