Werner Herzog, Cave Man


He’s a director who has literally eaten his own shoe and once hypnotized his cast—but Werner Herzog’s most shocking project yet might just be a 3-D movie that actually works. In his new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog utilizes 3-D technology to capture the earliest known cave drawings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France. Filming the various bison, leopards, and horses, the drawings come alive through Herzog’s lens. At a recent Q&A, Herzog described what drew him to the cave paintings. “They were, of course, very mysterious. In a way I became aware that this is the origin of art or even the origin of the modern human soul.”

Although Herzog was interested in documenting the paintings, he faced considerable red tape to get access to the cave. “I had the feeling that I should do it and no one else. I did battle and somehow I got the permit… It was not only the French ministry of culture, it is also the regional government, and the council of scientists. I was very, very lucky.”

The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave is literally behind a lock and key, with no unauthorized visitors allowed in order to preserve the drawings. As a result, even after obtaining the permit, Herzog’s filming was extremely limited. “We only had four hours a day for six days. Normally, 3-D equipment is quite clumsy and hard to handle. I was only allowed three people with me, and only the equipment we could carry in our hands,” Herzog said. Compounding the problem was the fact that a similar cave had been shut down earlier. “These restrictions are not a caprice… There were too many visitors inside, and the exhalation of human beings created a mold on the walls that’s very hard to control… There was a high duty upon me to [film this as carefully] as possible.”

A documentary about cave drawings starring a bunch of French scientists does not exactly imply a magical cinematic experience. But Herzog, with his melodious Teutonic voiceovers, manages to emphasize the fantastical over the scientific. One of the most striking revelations in the film is that the paintings were not done over a few years, but over millennia. Said the delighted Herzog, “What’s fascinating to me is [with our] understanding of time—things [in the cave] are inconceivable. For example reindeers were painted and then somebody painted over them-that was five thousand years later. It’s completely mindboggling.”

It’s Herzog’s ability to connect the past with the present that makes the film a memorable one. In one defining scene a scientist asks for quiet, saying, “We are going to listen to the silence of the cave, and if we’re lucky we may even hear our own heartbeat.” Following his advice, Herzog let the silence linger.