Werner Herzog on Cave of Forgotten Dreams | Interview
Herzog goes spelunking in Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
“Is it already dark in Chicago?” It’s fitting that Werner Herzog ends our interview by asking about the sunset, before the publicist hangs up; apart from being our foremost cine-philosopher and (especially lately) a pop-culture celebrity, the German director is also a tireless chronicler of geography. The last ten years alone have brought him to India, Tibet, Guyana, Thailand, Antarctica, New Orleans and San Diego. Now, with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he takes his camera inside France’s Chauvet Cave, which contains mankind’s oldest paintings, dating from 32,000 years ago. (That’s 15,000 years older than the more famous artwork at Lascaux.) Almost by accident, it’s also Herzog’s first film in 3-D, a technology he employed to provide a sense of dimensionality.
For Herzog, the cave is not so much a new territory to explore as a means of revisiting his favorite theme. “You shouldn’t look at the landscapes of where I’m doing things. I think what is more significant is that I’m looking deep inside the recesses of time,” he says by phone from New York, in the familiar Teutonic cadence with which he narrates his documentaries. “Something dawned on me, because at the moment I’m finishing a film on death row. I had a feeling that both Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Death Row are just a straight gaze into the abyss of the human soul.”
He explains that the Chauvet paintings were done by Neanderthals, who as far as we know never had figurative painting or religious ceremonies before the ones evidenced there. Herzog was allowed special access to the cave, whose ecosystem is so delicate it’s normally opened only to scientists. “I think it was the intensity of my wish to do the film,” Herzog says. “Nobody who walks out of the film talks about having seen a film, which I think is marvelous. They speak about having seen a cave.”
For the filmmaker, it’s hardly the last frontier. He’d love to do Herzog in space. “I would be the first one! Nothing better than that,” he says with a laugh. “They always send out these technical people, and they haven’t sent out a poet yet. But I’m afraid I’m too old for that. You have to have all of your teeth intact. But I would really like to be on Mars.”
Fear certainly isn’t a factor—not for the man who tamed Klaus Kinski. (“Kinski made 210 films. And 205 films he made without me. Nobody talks about these 205 films, but everybody talks about the five films we made together.”) In 2006, in a widely YouTubed moment, a sniper shot Herzog with an air rifle during a TV interview. Herzog shrugs it off in the footage: “It’s not a significant bullet.” (“I’m not blasé about being shot,” Herzog elaborates. “It’s never completely pleasant. However, being shot unsuccessfully is a very exhilarating moment in a man’s life.”)
Herzog won’t talk about the politics of one of his strangest recent films, the pointedly post-Katrina Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. “We should be cautious talking about political film—it would only chase an audience away,” he warns. “I’m not in the business of making political film as an activist and with a political agenda. Those days are over. That was the ’60s.”
Even with Death Row, shot in Texas and Florida? “Yes, it has a political side, but the film is not making a big fuss about the debate. I’m not an activist against the death penalty. I’m not an advocate of the death penalty, and that’s about it—no more. Of course, the debate is there, but it belongs to discussions in parliament. It belongs to the decision-making of American citizens. You should not forget, I’m a guest in your country, and I respect what the country decides to do politically, although I do not necessarily have to agree.”
The death-row project will consist of a feature and a supplemental miniseries. The title of the latter, incidentally, is Gazing into the Abyss.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens Friday 29.