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Werner Herzog

The German maverick talks about working in 3D for his new documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

German filmmaker Werner Herzog wasn’t able to make it to the Berlinale for the screening of his feature documentary Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (he is away in Texas working on a new project.) Nonetheless, he talked to Screen about the film by phone. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s first film in 3D, is largely set inside the Chauvet cave in France. Here, on the walls, are some of the earliest known cave paintings.

Why did you use 3D in this film?

Well, I think it is imperative to use 3D. Once I saw the cave, it was infinitely clear this was imperative. Other films like the film I am shooting right now would be silly to shoot in 3D. You have to find the right project. Since my film in the cave may be the only film ever to be permitted to be shot there, because the climate in there
is so delicate, you had to bring the audience into the cave itself.

That’s the funny thing. With almost all audiences I’ve met after a screening, nobody talks about having seen a movie. They all speak about having been a cave! That is the perfect response for me. I am very proud of that.

How did you yourself feel in the cave? You mention in the film that feeling people have in the cave of eyes being on them.

The images (in the cave) are so fresh. It’s as if somebody had left yesterday. There are tracks of bears and there is the footprint of a boy which, by the way, I could never see because we could never leave the metal walkway. You have the feeling that you are entering a cave that was just left by people. It is as if half an hour ago, they went into some deeper recesses. This feeling was not my own. I asked others who were working in there and they all had the same feeling.

Is it an oppressive feeling?

Not at all. You have the feeling this is us – this is the awakening of the modern human soul.

Do you admire the archaeologists?

It (archaeology) is totally legitimate. Why they (the cave dwellers) did it (drew on the walls) and what was the meaning of it, we will never know. We can only speculate. And we should separate speculation from precise (scientific) findings. What is stunning about those findings is, for example, that there is one reindeer in charcoal that can be carbon dating fairly precisely. Somebody else completes the image and paints another reindeer over it. This other one was dated. They found that both painters were 5000 years apart. This is completely stunning, the distance of time that is unimaginably vast.

One of your interviewees talks about Picasso’s Minotaur and the sexual content of the imagery on the cave walls.

Of course, for 35,000 years, we have done the same to have babies. Let’s face it. There’s a mythology which in a way reaches us until today. Picasso was not alive any more when Chauvet cave was discovered. It is very, very mysterious and very beautiful to know that apparently, 32,000 years ago, a similar mythology wasalready in existence.

The albino alligators you show at the end are a little like the reptiles Nic Cage is obsessed with in your film of The Bad Lieutenant. Why did you show those creatures?

It’s pure science fiction and pure fantasy. How does an albino crocodile view the paintings? We have no idea. We see these paintings with completely different cultural eyes than they were seen 30,000 years ago. It points out how distant our vision is. We are at a loss (in front of the cave images) but at the same time, we are not.

We can approximate, we can approach and feel ourselves towards these people by asking Aboriginal people who lived until very recently a Stone Age existence. We have hints and clues that makes the approach a little bit easier but still we do not have a clear answer. I love things like the albino crocodiles. One day, they will have to take me out in a straitjacket!

How does your concept of “ecstatic truth” affect the way you make films?

There are facts but they do not illuminate. I am looking for something where you look very deep into the human soul, into the deepest recesses of the cave where all of a sudden something illuminates you – something you can only experience almost like a religious ecstasy. Sometimes that happens in poetry, sometimes in
movies. Those are the rare moments and I am after that.

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