Werner Herzog Cave Exclusive


Written by Chris Price
28 Monday 28th February 2011

The discovery of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in Ardèche was made in 1994. The Ardèche area is a Mecca for geologists and archaeologists, but the Chauvet Cave, preserved by a landslip, was found to contain some of the most detailed Paleolithic cave paintings. Fear of damage from exposure to light and human activity has meant that only a tiny handful of researchers have witnessed the paintings in person, yet the powers that be decided to allow one film crew to document the extraordinary collection of untouched cave paintings within. That spot was nabbed by Herzog, flanked by a skeleton 3D film unit of three.

Herzog captures a real sense of discovery and awe for the incredible detail of the paintings. On his two trips to the cave, he lingers on each stroke and line, narrating the activity in each image as if it were being played out live. The limited flitting fluorescent lighting, wielded by Herzog himself, evokes the dancing campfire flame of the artists, infusing the images with the sense of animation they would’ve had back when they were drawn.

The structure of the film is slightly uneven, and it’s a bit too long for this material at over 80 minutes, but it’s a beautifully personal project for Herzog, and all the more endearing for it. 3D is used to excellent effect, even with the patchy image quality (due to the inability to use strong lighting in the cave). The depth of the cave is accentuated as each outcrop glistens with life, and the journey into the inner sanctum is particularly immersive. On a social level, it’s a superb time-capsule, as Herzog himself notes in this exclusive interview.

Why did you want to make this film?

When I was 12, I walked past a bookstore and saw a book on prehistoric paintings, with a beautiful painting of a horse from the Lascaux Cave. I knew I had to have this book, but I had no money so I worked for half a year as a ball boy on tennis courts and borrowed some money too.

I passed by this window display every week and hoped and prayed to God that no one would buy the book. It seems I thought that book was the only one, that there were no copies. I bought the book and since then this kind of awe has been inside me. It was instantly clear that I had to make this film and I had a very strong affinity with it.

The process started seven or eight months before filming and there were massive hurdles - as a German, why should I make a film about a French cave? I was lucky because the French minister of culture is apparently a great fan of my films. This made it somewhat easier. I also proposed that I work as an employee of the French ministry of culture and give the film to the French for free, so that they could play it in tens of thousands of French classrooms in high schools and colleges, all for free. Of course I demanded a fee, which was one Euro, and it was a good argument.

There were other hurdles. The regional government or the scientists could have said no, because of there being too many people, too many exhalations of humans breath, which is very damaging [for the paintings].

There was a huge legal problem with the discoverers of the cave, who for 16 years sued the French state over their discovery and lost every single lawsuit and appeal. They claimed to have some sort of copyright, but of course you cannot copyright something that is 32,000 years old. There was a claim over participating in books, photos, postcards, movies, whatever. They were in a way the tragic figures in the film and unfortunately they did not agree to participate in the shoot.

I wish they had done, but apparently the shooting of this movie facilitated things, which meant the French ministry of culture agreed to have an independent arbitrator step in, and I believe there will be a decision very soon. We tried to put a credit, a written text at the very end about the discoverers, but I haven’t seen it yet. It was a last-moment addendum.

But I really want to express my gratitude and I think the whole world owes them something sensational. Without them we may have never seen these images. Maybe in 20,000 years, somebody would have eventually come across this cave. So their achievement is monumental. I have met them and I like them, and they like me back, but I did not want to compromise myself in a legal position.

The 3D gave us a wonderful experience going into the cave. Could you talk about why you chose to use 3D here?

It was immediately imperative once I saw the cave. I had been sceptical - because you have a wall of paintings. But the moment I saw them, with this wild drama of bulges and niches in their own dynamics, it was clear. And in particular because we were the only team ever allowed in. This cave might be shut down for the next 5,000 years.

I had the feeling 3D should be used in such a way that we could still sensitise the audience to music, to fantasies, to the mystery of these images; that even though it was in 3D, you could reach beyond what you’ve just seen - you have to think, you have to see, you should be in awe. And a sense of awe comes across through 3D, strangely enough.

What aspect of 3D is still underestimated by filmmakers?

I have seen only one 3D film, which was Avatar. The problem with Avatar is some of the story, which is New Age bullshit! But otherwise it was a colossal achievement. Please do not underestimate it, it is a monumental event in filmmaking, it has opened up a whole arena in 3D.

However, I am still a sceptic about 3D for two reasons. One, we are not made for seeing in 3D all the time. I can draw a parallel with sound. When we are in a noisy sidewalk café and we are talking to each other, we listen to each other and we hear each other’s voice. But if we recorded it with a microphone we would only hear the traffic and we could barely make out the dialogue, because when listening from a recording, the brain cannot focus, it cannot be selective anymore. And a similar thing happens with 3D. It does not open up the fantasies of being selective, it forces itself on us and it is uncomfortable.

When we are talking to each other we don’t notice that there is a third dimension there. Basketball players notice it, they know where the basket is even when they are turned away from it. Or if somebody comes at you with a knife or a bloody axe, of course you will immediately switch over to 3D and see how quickly the attacker comes.

Also, the most intense argument I have is that, beyond the strictures of 3D, you do not see anything else. It’s like fireworks, there’s nothing beyond the fireworks. And if you had a story, say Rashomon by Kurosawa, a comedy, or a romantic comedy, you could not shoot it in 3D because it would be defined by nothing but that.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens on 25 March.

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