Werner Herzog talks about his latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which finds him exploring the Chauvet Cave in the south of France, where a series of drawings - found to be 35,000 years old - were discovered among the crystal-encrusted limestone. He discusses presenting his findings in 3D, albino crocodiles, Baywatch references, and what the drawings might say about humanity.
As a childhood fan of cave drawings yourself, could you believe your luck when this project first came to you?
Werner Herzog: No, it's not that I couldn't believe my luck. I wanted to make the film and it took about a year until the moment came where I had to believe my luck. Of course, French film-makers wanted to do the film and the French are territorial when it comes to their patrimony. So, why is it that a Bavarian instead of a Frenchman wants to do it? Of course, there were permissions that we had to have from the Ministry of Culture, from the government, from the Association of Scientists. Each one of them could have said "No" and it wouldn't have happened. So, it was a fairly complex procedure and it was only when I had all these permits I could say: "Yes, I'm very lucky." But I didn't just feel lucky. I knew I was competent to do it and I knew I was the right one.
So what was your first impression when you saw these drawings for the first time?
Werner Herzog: Well, you can't really describe it... something awesome, just awesome. But it wasn't only the paintings that were such a deep surprise... the real surprise was the beauty of the cave. Nobody prepared me for that... these crystal cathedrals in stalactites and stalagmites. And the other surprise was the amount of skeletal remains inside the cave... about 4,000 bones and skulls of cave bears that were extinct by now. You have footprints, almost fresh footprints, of an animal cave bear that have been extinct for 15,000 years.
Is it humbling to be in the presence of something like that?
Werner Herzog: Not humbling, it's just that you are confronted with abysses of time that are, in a way, unfathomable. You see a painting in charcoal of let's say a reindeer and it was left unfinished and somebody else finished it. But through radio carbon dating we know that the next one completed the painting 5,000 years later [laughs]. You're just blown away by the notion of passage of time. We have no relationship to that kind of depth of time.
Why did you decide to shoot in 3D?
Werner Herzog: It was kind of imperative with all the drama of bulges and niches that were used by the artists to form their paintings. It was obvious I had to do it in 3D, even though I'm not a great advocate of 3D filming. When you look at all my films so far I wouldn't have liked to do any of them in 3D.
How did you find using 3D? What kind of challenges did it present?
Werner Herzog: When you move closer to an object you have to reconfigure your camera, so inside a dark cave, on a 60cm wide walkway, we had to very quickly build a new type of camera where the eyes would move closer together and then you even started to squint. So, this is a high precision, mechanical sort of procedure. Since we were only allowed six days and four hours in each day you really had to be fast and know what you are doing.
The paintings and painters have been described by some as comparable to the work of great artists like Picasso. Do you share that view?
Werner Herzog: Not entirely, and we have to speculate now because we do not know. Maybe the paintings were meant to be pieces of art, which I would place some question mark behind. Maybe it was some sort of cult, or had some religious connotation surrounding it. Maybe it was somebody who drew a lion for target shooting. We just do not know. But when you speak about Picasso, what is interesting is that there is one painting among all the animals depicted... a partial depiction of the lower part of a female body, partially embraced by a bison. It's a very mysterious, strange picture on a piece of rock but as strange as it is over tens of thousands of years of time all of a sudden, in the art of Pablo Picasso, you have the same motif - the Minotaur and the female. And, of course, Picasso died way before the Chauvet Cave was discovered. So, somehow there must be a distant echo coming through the ages at us and we don't know how!
There's a nice line in comedy throughout the film, especially in your interviews and observations. The Baywatch reference springs to mind...
Werner Herzog: Again, a motif like the Minotaur and the female. The depiction of the human body which was pointing at something basic... the survival of the human race, to fertility, sexuality and, of course, these little statuettes - the Venuses - are absolutely voluptuous and you see it until today and beyond Baywatch.
I can't imagine you tuning in for Baywatch. Did you watch it?
Werner Herzog: Barely ever... but in a way it always amazes me because we have to recognise it as the most internationally successful TV series ever! So, there must be a resonance worldwide within the entire human race to voluptuous blondes running in bikinis.
When did you find out about the albino crocodiles?
Werner Herzog: Late during the filming and I just dropped by because it was en route to something. I didn't even know there were some albinos there. The film goes completely bonkers at that point, during the postscript. It's like we are entering pure science fiction fantasy. But it's not just for the sake of that fantasy, it has to do with our perception and the perception of the people at that time, 32,000 years ago. We cannot reconstruct it - we do not know. Of course, we can describe our perception, but what is going to happen in 20 generations from now? And how would albino crocodiles see it if they expand all the way to Chauvet Cave [laughs]? In fact, reality is much wilder than my science fiction fantasies. Not long ago, six crocodiles escaped and there was a big crocodile hunt, including helicopters, and one is still at large! It's beautiful [laughs]!
On another topic, I gather you've leant your voice to The Simpsons?
Werner Herzog: That, in fact, is my apotheosis in American popular culture. Of course, in a way, people started to like my voice from my commentaries. I think I do them quite alright. I don't care whether there's an accent in it and it can't get any worse! It doesn't really matter. There is something authentic there, there is something credible there and there is something that is distinct from other voices. There is this film, Plastic Bag, where I do the voice of the plastic bag. I was in another cartoon series, the Boondocks, and I've been acting more than in earlier years, as a paid actor.
How are you enjoying acting?
Werner Herzog: I like it because I know I'm good, but only in... let's say I'm always good when it comes to hostile, dysfunctional, violent, debased characters [laughs]!
Interview: Rob Carnevale
Photo: Picturehouse Entertainment