Werner Herzog: 'Wherever I look, I look into an abyss'
Ben Walters talks to the German filmmaking maverick about his latest film, a 3D documentary on ancient cave paintings.
Granted unique access by the French government to the usually closed site, Herzog’s 3D film is an intoxicating and dislocating record of timeless beauty. The thoughts represented by these paintings are impossible to recapture but, in his voiceover, Herzog hints at a more permeable, fluid conception of our place in the universe than our own categorised outlook permits. Was this, I ask him down the line to Los Angeles, his abiding impression of the difference between paleolithic and modern man?
‘Let’s face it,’ he says in his distinctively articulated German accent, ‘your question is too heavy for a discourse now in Time Out. We’d need 48 hours. But in all probability for these people the world was much more flexible. You could transform into a lion or a lion could transform into you. A wall could accept you or reject you. But of course we don’t know. The young generation of archaeologists is very, very cautious about making definitive statements.’
Herzog became fascinated with cave paintings when, aged 12, he spotted a book about the cave paintings at Lascaux in the Dordogne and found work as a ball-boy so he could buy it. ‘That was the first time my own intellectual curiosity awakened independent of what I was taught at school or at home,’ he says.
Fifty-six years later, Chauvet did not disappoint. ‘It’s like a time capsule,’ he reports of the cave which was discovered in 1994. ‘It was completely sealed for more than 25,000 years. You’re stepping in and there are fresh tracks of cave bears and skulls and even a footprint of a perhaps eight-year-old boy next to the footprints of a wolf. We immediately know this is sounding into the deepest recesses of the time when the human soul awakened.’
Granted only six four-hour shooting periods with a three-man crew, Herzog had little time for reverie. ‘I had to be professional,’ he says. ‘I had to do my duty. Only when we were leaving, I let the crew walk out and I stayed behind. For a few minutes, I was all alone there. It’s so silent you hear your own heartbeat. It’s very hard to describe. I can only say it’s a sense of awe.’
The practical challenge was made all the greater by the technical demands of shooting stereoscopically. ‘Shooting 3D usually needs a huge apparatus but we were only allowed to stay on a two-foot wide walkway and could only use what we could carry in our hands,’ Herzog recalls. Much of his crew’s technique was improvised, but he had no doubts about using the format.
‘When I saw the cave for the first time, it was clear this was the only choice. It was imperative. I was under the impression they are fairly flat walls with panels of images but the artists took advantage of the three-dimensional drama of the cave: a bulge in the wall would be the neck of a bison charging you, a niche would be used for a horse just peeking out cautiously, things like this.’
Even so, Herzog thinks 3D should be used sparingly. ‘It’s good for the big fireworks like “Avatar”,’ he says, ‘but you cannot have anything beyond the effect of the firework. The great beauty of cinema is that we can live through a parallel story occurring within the hearts of the audience; with 3D, there’s nothing beyond the actuality. I have a dictum: do a porno film in 3D but don’t you dare to make a romantic film in 3D.’ ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’, he plausibly maintains, avoids sensationalism through artful narration and music.
Even had it been available, Herzog says, he wouldn’t have used the technology for any earlier projects. I’m surprised at this, given his longstanding interest in flight and how well-suited that seems to be to 3D filmmaking. ‘Yes,’ he says, without missing a beat. ‘You're pointing at something I have not thought about. “The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner” [his 1974 documentary about a champion ski-jumper] might have been good in 3D. One out of 60 or so…’
In any case, the half-dozen projects on Herzog’s current slate are 2D. The day before our conversation, he’d finished shooting a documentary about death row inmates. (‘I’ve never made anything as intense… It’s going to be a big one.’) It might seem like another tangent for a filmmaker whose recent subjects have ranged from the eco-warrior of ‘Grizzly Man’ to the ice-scapes of ‘Encounters at the End of the World’. But Herzog feels his interests are consistent.
‘I’ve always been trying to scrutinise and look deep into the recesses of the human soul,’ he says. ‘It’s very hard to make a connection between someone who flies off a ramp on skis and a film in Antarctica and a bear activist and a cave and death row but I know, deep inside, yes, these films belong together. It’s all the same family. Wherever I look, I look into an abyss.’
Read our review of 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' here
Author: Ben Walters
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