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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Werner Herzog, directed the new film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." It's a 3-D documentary about the Chauvet Cave in France that has cave paintings which are 30,000 years old, the oldest ones that scientists know of. The cave had been sealed off by fallen rock for over 20,000 years before French scientists discovered it in 1994.

The climate and ecology in the cave are so delicate that visitors aren't allowed in. So it wasn't easy for Herzog to get permission to bring cameras and a small crew into the cave. As we'll hear, he had to follow strict rules.

The results are remarkable, enabling us to see, in 3-D, a glimpse of our prehistory: Paleolithic art, cave bear claw scratches, animal bones and incredibly beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.

Werner Herzog's other films include "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo," "Nosferatu" and "Grizzly Man." Those films are about men - and one vampire - who go to extremes. And Herzog is known as a filmmaker willing to endure extreme conditions to make his movies.

Werner Herzog, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. WERNER HERZOG (Director, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"): Thank you.

GROSS: Let me start by asking you to describe some of the cave paintings that you find most extraordinary.

Mr. HERZOG: Well, the whole ensemble of the cave and all the paintings is awesome. So it's very hard to single out one specific part of it. But for me, the most intense of all is the so-called "Panel of Lions."

You see lions - five, six, seven of them - stalking something, their eyes with incredible intensity pointed, all exactly pointed at one object. And you don't know what they are stalking. So it's really very, very beautiful, very intense, very accomplished.

GROSS: I was amazed at how some of the images were shaded in, and there was a certain amount of depth implied in how they were shaded. I was expecting, when I walked into your film, to see amazing line drawings and stick figures, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it's so much more sophisticated than that.

Mr. HERZOG: Well, I think art, as it bursts on the scene 32,000 years ago, is fully accomplished. It doesn't start with - I say it in quotes - "primitive scribblings" and first attempts like children would make drawings. No. It's absolutely and fully accomplished, and not in Roman and Greek antiquity or in Renaissance or in modern times, painting has gotten any better.

GROSS: Now, the Chauvet Cave where you filmed wasn't discovered until 1994. Tell us some of the things that the keepers of the cave have been doing to keep it as untouched, as pristine as possible.

Mr. HERZOG: When they discovered the cave, they did everything right to preserve it. They immediately understood the importance of the cave. They would only very carefully move along the floor by spreading out sheets of plastic and step on it, because you could immediately see that there were fairly fresh tracks of cave bears.

The cave bear actually went extinct 20,000-or-so years ago, but there are still fresh tracks of them. And, of course, later, when scientists moved in, they did it with utmost caution, never touching anything. A metal walkway was built, and you never leave this walkway.

All these precautions were necessary also for preserving the cave in a way that not too many people entering would leave, with their breath, some mold on the walls, which happened in the most famous other cave, Lascaux in the Dordogne area of France: too many tourists, too many visitors with their exhalations, with their breath created a mold on the wall that is now very hard to control, and the cave is categorically shut down now. Same thing with Altamira in the Pyrenees in Spain.

GROSS: Well, before I ask you how you got into this cave and got permission to make a film about it, why did you want to make a film about the Chauvet Cave?

Mr. HERZOG: Since early adolescence, I have been fascinated by cave paintings. It actually was my personal awakening, independent awakening, intellectual awakening by seeing a book in a bookstore in the display. And it really shook me to the core, seeing an image of a horse, and it said prehistoric and Stone Age paintings, and I couldn't believe it. And I would pass by the window each week and try to earn money as a ball-boy in tennis courts, and I hoped that nobody would buy the book. Apparently, I thought it was the only one. And finally, I bought it, and a kind of shudder of awe seeing these paintings is still in me, somehow.

GROSS: And is your interest in the paintings themselves or also in the knowledge that there was, like, tens of thousands of years ago, there was an instinct to make art, there was an instinct to represent the world?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. It is strange and very significant that, all of a sudden, we have the presence of what I would call the modern human soul. We should be careful to define what soul means, but all modernities, all of a sudden, bursting on the scene. Neanderthal man actually did not have all this, and other civilizations did not have it. Earlier human beings did not represent the world in figurative means: painting, sculptures and so on.

GROSS: So this happens with Paleolithic man.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, it does.

GROSS: And it's Paleolithic man who did the cave paintings at Chauvet?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. I mean, more precisely, Aurignacian. It's a particular phase of earlier Paleolithic time.

GROSS: So once you decided you wanted to make this film about the Chauvet Cave, how did you get permission to go inside with a film crew and shoot it, considering how hard they've been working at the cave to keep people out of it so that the cave can be maintained?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, of course it was the biggest of all battles. And we took our time. I had to approach the Ministry of Culture, but there's also the regional government which has to give its okay. And, of course, the scientists, the Council of the Scientists, have to see you and give their okay.

And I was very lucky that the French minister of culture, Frederic Mitterrand -he's a nephew of the former president. Frederic Mitterrand turned out to be a great fan of my films. And in this respect, I already had some slight advantage.

But the French can be very territorial when it comes to their own patrimoine, their patrimony, their legacy in art and culture. And, of course, me, as a Bavarian filmmaker, why am I going to do this and not a French one?

So I think it was clear that I was kind of competent as a filmmaker, and probably the fervor, the fire inside of me concerning cave art, these paintings, was a convincing item. And otherwise, beyond giving everything that was in me into these discourses, beyond all this, I think I was just very, very lucky.

GROSS: Well, what about the regional government and the scientists? Did they know your movies, and were they open to the idea of you doing the film?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, they had to be convinced, and I had to meet the scientists, and I had to explain myself. And I had to explain myself how I would do it technically.

Of course, the restrictions were enormous. I was only allowed four hours a day for a week. I was only allowed three men with me. I was only allowed to carry along what we could carry in our hands. So we couldn't move heavy equipment in there and install it - lights that would only emit light without any temperature. And, of course, all the restrictions, you never step off the metal walkway.

This is why the crew sometimes could not hide away. You cannot just step behind the camera and hide, because you would step on the floor of the cave.

GROSS: And they wanted you to keep on the walk so that you didn't contaminate the rest of the cave, yeah.

Mr. HERZOG: Oh, you never - can never touch anything. It's not just contaminating. There are footprints, fairly fresh footprints. You do not want to superimpose your print of your hiking boot upon it. There's...

GROSS: Oh, over the cave-bear print. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, you just don't do this. And there's a footprint of a child, maybe eight-year-old, this very mysterious. We couldn't film it. We were not allowed, because it was deep in a recess of the cave.

The mysterious thing is that next to this footprint, probably a boy, probably around eight years old, parallel to it runs the footprint of a wolf. And I was very, very puzzled: Did the wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or did the wolf leave its footprints 5,000 years later? It's stunning. The lapse of time is completely and utterly stunning.

(Break)

GROSS: Would you describe the first time you went into the cave and what the sensation was like of being in it?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, I can describe it. I was allowed one hour before, about a month before I started shooting, because I insisted I had to have a look, a quick look, at what was awaiting me, how I could move, where I could put a camera, how big a tripod, for example, could be. So I was allowed one hour.

And it was just a moment of complete awe. There's nothing else, just awe, and, of course, surprises, because I was not prepared for the fact that the cave is so beautiful. It's like crystal cathedrals and stalactites and stalagmites and just like a fairy-tale universe down there, and I was not prepared.

I knew, yes, there were some bones, but there are actually 4,000 bones, mostly cave bear - today extinct - skulls, vertebrae, ribcages, 4,000 of them, among them not a single human bone because there was no human habitation in this cave. They only used it for painting.

So that's all the things you see first, and you are stunned by it, because you didn't expect it. And then facing the paintings, it's just sheer awe how beautiful and how accomplished they are.

GROSS: And you mention it's this kind of crystal landscape. Everything is covered in this calcified crystal. What does that come from?

Mr. HERZOG: Seeping water that actually leaves layers, creates formations of stalactites and stalagmites. But it's also significant, it is so fresh, it is so as if it had been left yesterday. Things are so fresh, and all of a sudden, you see a painting of a cave bear, a charcoal painting, and about half-an-inch layer of calcite over it, which takes thousands of years to form. So you know this is not a forgery.

That was actually the first indication: This is not a forgery. This is for real. And, of course, through carbon, radiocarbon dating, you can establish fairly precisely when was the painting done.

There are swipe-marks of torches. You see, when a torch burns down, and in order to rekindle it, it's like cutting the wick of a candle, you swipe the torch against the wall. And little fragments of charcoal were analyzed through radiocarbon dating, and we know pretty precisely when somebody swiped this torch - something, let's say, 28,400 years ago.

GROSS: What did the air feel and smell like in the cave when you first entered?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, it's slightly humid, and, of course, I have a perfume, a master perfumer in the film, because there is a plan to recreate the cave three-dimensionally outside in some sort of what I call the Disneyland version.

Since nobody's going to be allowed in the cave, they will replicate the entire cave and replicate the paintings on the walls. And there was even a plan to recreate - of course, in our imagination - the odor, the scent inside of the cave, which means maybe some carrion of rotting cave bears, some fire, some whatever, resins.

And I found a master perfumer who describes, who fantasizes wildly about how the odor may have been 32,000 years ago. However, when you are entering there, it's slightly humid, no significant traces of any smell of anything prehistoric in there.

GROSS: Would you describe how the people who discovered the cave managed to find it?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. In particular, the main discoverer, Jean-Marie Chauvet, has been out there. And you have to understand there's a dramatic gorge and a stone arc, a natural arc spans it, a fantastic piece of landscape, almost like out of a Wagner opera, like staging a Wagner opera.

And apparently, this has attracted prehistoric man. I think romanticism is not our property alone, not the property of the Romanticists. There must have been a feeling among these people, because it's significant that six or seven other caves are, like, in a cluster around this spectacular arc.

And they were out trying to find other caves, and I think they mostly looked for drafts of air, very faint drafts of air. I think Chauvet put his cheek to the rocks and tried to feel something, and Eliette Brunel, I think, with the back of her hand, was feeling around.

They sensed a draft of air, cleared out debris and rocks and found a shaft, a tunnel, a horizontal tunnel, barely wide enough to crawl into. And then it ends up in a vertical drop. And they were in there, and they immediately sealed it off again when they saw the importance of what they had found. They did everything right, everything.

GROSS: Why did you want to use 3-D? And a lot of people are asking the question: 3-D to show two-dimensional cave paintings? Why do you need 3-D?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, that was my opinion when I saw photos. It looked almost like flat walls, maybe slightly undulating or so. And thank God I went in there without any camera a month before shooting.

And what you see in there, it's limestone, and you have these wildly undulating walls. You have bulges and niches and pendants of rock. And there's a real incredible drama of formation.

And the artists utilized it for their paintings, for the drama of paintings. You see a horse that comes out very shyly out of a recess, of a niche. You see wild use of pendants or a bulge of the rock now is a bulging neck of a bison coming at you.

So it was immediately clear that - not only clear, it was imperative to do this in 3-D, as we were probably the only ones ever allowed to film.

GROSS: And also, like, the stalactites and stalagmites in 3-D are really remarkable to behold.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes.

GROSS: So you were only allowed not only a limited amount of time, but a limited amount of space. You couldn't lug in whatever equipment you wanted to. It had to be proportionate to the walkway that you were confined to...

Mr. HERZOG: Exactly, yeah.

GROSS: ...and to the proportions of the cave. So did you have to customize your equipment in order to even bring it in?

Mr. HERZOG: We did, yes. And, of course, 3-D cameras are fairly clumsy. And, of course, we were not allowed to have support from outside. You see, the climate in the cave is so delicate, they opened the steel door for entering, and they opened it for getting us out. But if you had forgotten something, yes, we would open the door again, but that would have meant the end of the day of shooting.

And for 3-D, when you have a wider shot and you see a large part of the cave and you move very close in to one particular painting, you have to reconfigure your entire camera. You have to build - literally build a different camera, because in 3-D, the two eyes, or rather the two lenses, have to move closer to each other. And when you are fairly close, these two eyes or lenses have to squint slightly.

So in semi-darkness, only with a few screwdrivers and with the help of torch light, we built our own camera for closer shots. But - which you can do if you have real, real competent, good people with you.

GROSS: Wow, and you'd never worked with 3-D before. So you were just adjusting to it yourself.

Mr. HERZOG: No. Well, you have to be quick, and you better do it. You better do it right, because that's the only shot you have.

(Break)

GROSS: One of the things I especially liked about your use of 3-D is that you used it to represent, as accurately as you could, the unique, rare world of this cave, as opposed to some kind of fantasy world where, you know, you're using 3-D for special effects. Like there isn't a part in your movie where it's like, oh my god, that bird is flying into the audience. He's in front of my face. You know...

Mr. HERZOG: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You're not using it to like scare or shock the audience. You're using it to show what's going on in this cave. What did you learn about visual perception from working in 3-D? Do you feel like you started seeing things differently, knowing that you were shooting it on 3-D?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, I saw things differently, and not only seeing it, it's a form of narration. When you start editing and you have to be aware, you cannot edit very fast like - and that's a mistake of many of the 3-D films nowadays. They use the same very quick cut, cut, cut, cut, cut technique of action movies. However, our eye, our brain needs a little more time to adapt to a new three-dimensional shot or reality, so they are cutting too fast. I always understood 3-D, not only as a specific spatial formation, I also sensed there was a certain different way of time, of narrating it - immersing yourself, with music, into it. So it's a highly complex, highly complex thing. And of course, in a very complex way, I saw the cave differently and that's how I shot it.

GROSS: Is 3-D asking our eyes and our brains to process images differently than a two-dimensional film?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes it is. It's a little bit like when you listen to sound when you're in a street cafe and noise around you and traffic noise. The brain is very selective. We only hear what you are saying opposite to me and we filter out the rest. But when you listen to a tape recording of it, it's very hard to even make out what we said to each other. And it's similar with 3-D filming or 2-D filming. 3-D filming never somehow allows you to step back into an easy mode where you can filter things out.

Our brain is made to avoid 3-D most of the time. We have one dominant eye which sees only in 2-D and a peripheral second, the other eye, peripherally only sees in 3-D. So the brain is lazy and tries to avoid seeing 3-D. And in a 3-D movie we are forced to see 3-D all the time and it's, in a way it's tiring.

GROSS: Now there's a scene in your documentary about the cave in which you're talking about the possibility with all the torches inside that our ancestors would have been able to see their shadows and see shadows on the wall.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. Most certainly, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And that leads you to think about shadow dancing, and that leads you to think about Fred Astaire and a shadow dancing scene. And then you show the Fred Astaire...

Mr. HERZOG: I couldn't help it.

GROSS: You couldn't help it.

Mr. HERZOG: I could not help it.

GROSS: No. No. I have to...

Mr. HERZOG: Because...

GROSS: I have to stop you here. Wait. Wait, wait. Wait, wait.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I actually met you a few years ago at a reception after you, after a screening of your films at the University of Pennsylvania. And you were talking about how you had been watching Fred Astaire films. So I thought, okay. (Laughing) I see how Fred Astaire ended up in this documentary about a 30,000-year-old cave because you were watching Fred Astaire films.

Go ahead. Yes.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. That is correct. Yeah. It is actually, arguably - or for me, certainly the greatest singing sequence in all of film history, Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadows. And all of a sudden he stops and the shadows become independent and dance without him and he has to catch up with them. I mean it's just so quintessential movie. It can't be, it can't get more beautiful. It's actually from "Swing Time."

And when you look at the cave and there are certain panels, there's evidence of some fires on the ground. They were not for cooking. They were - because there's no evidence of any habitation in there. They were used for illumination. You have to step in front of these fires to look at the images. And, of course, when you move you must see your own shadow. And immediately Fred Astaire comes to mind, who did something 32,000 years later, which is essentially what we can imagine for early Paleolithic people.

GROSS: Now, the question comes up: what's the difference between a Werner Herzog documentary about a cave and anybody else's, you know, a National Geographic documentary about a cave? And I think you just answered that in a way. (Laughing)

Mr. HERZOG: I think...

GROSS: Your imagination is seeing all of these connections. Suddenly Fred Astaire is shadow dancing in your movie and, you know, you're talking, you know, in your narration not just about the fact but about things that makes you think about.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. And our imagination, and our entire approach as human beings. How do we enter a cave like this? How do we experience it? How does it surpass our wildest dreams? All this I think you would not see in a National Geographic documentary.

GROSS: As wonderful as those National Geographic documentaries are.

Mr. HERZOG: Mine are better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: Sorry for saying that. I say it only in quotes.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: My apologies. National Geographic, accept my apologies. But I think I - no, my films are different and I think the way I shot and present "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is different and it's a position which moves away from what you normally expect from a documentary. We have to deal with reality in new ways. We have to find a new answer to all these dramatic shifts in perception of reality.

GROSS: And I'll just...

Mr. HERZOG: But it's there is. Yeah.

GROSS: I'll just say I'm glad that your films and National Geographic films exist and...

Mr. HERZOG: All right.

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. HERZOG: Let's accept it like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: There is cohabitation.

GROSS: Cohabitation. Exactly.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes.

(Break)

GROSS: So, when I was watching your cave documentary, and there were references to cave bears that existed then and are now long extinct.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes.

GROSS: I couldn't help but think of the documentary that you made "Grizzly Man," which is such a terrific film. And it's a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, this guy who went to the wild to film grizzly bears and saw himself as like the friend of the grizzlies, but it was not an environment that a human belonged in and eventually he was eaten. He and his girlfriend were eaten by a bear. And he actually got that on audiotape and the audiotape survived their deaths.

So thinking about - when you were in the cave and thinking about all the cave bears that used to be in there, did you think about "Grizzly Man?"

Mr. HERZOG: I always think, in a way, about "Grizzly Man." Whenever I step out into nature or wild nature, I immediately have Timothy Treadwell present. And, of course, he marks a position which, of course, was a tragic misunderstanding of wild nature. He romanticized it and he saw it as if the bears were all like in Walt Disney movies, friendly, fluffy creatures. Of course, they are ferocious and they ultimately eat you and they kill you. So Treadwell is always present in my life. I can't just discard this incredible man, this wonderful man in a movie. He is always around somehow.

GROSS: You seem to really be attracted to - I know I'm stating the obvious here - to extreme personalities and extreme environments. In terms of personalities you have Timothy Treadwell from "Grizzly Man," the character of Aguirre in "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" and then, of course, you're attracted to extreme environments. You did a documentary about this recently discovered cave that's 30,000 years old. You did a documentary about discoveries in Antarctica.

Do you consider yourself to be an extreme personality?

Mr. HERZOG: Difficult question. No I don't think so. I'm a professional. I'm a filmmaker. And I think what you are trying to combine makes a lot of sense. Many people tell me ah, you have been everywhere. You have shot in the Amazon, in the Sahara Desert, in Antarctica even. That would be horizontally spreading out, but I've always tried to look deep into the human condition. This is why I do a film on Timothy Treadwell. This is why I film "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" and other films. So it's always a look deep into the abyss, into the deepest recesses of the human soul or as far as you can scrutinize with a camera.

And it's maybe significant - at the moment, I'm doing a film on death row inmates and I thought about a title and I came up with "Gazing into the Abyss." And then the name of a person on death row like Joseph Garcia on death row, Michael Perry on death row, Linda Carty on death row. So, but all under the umbrella title, "Gazing into the Abyss." And all of a sudden it dawned on me well, that would have been a great title for the cave film. It would have been a great title for Timothy Treadwell. It would have been a great title for "Aguirre, The Wrath of God," as if I was more somebody who is vertically looking as deep as it gets.

GROSS: So I know one of the things - one of the questions that interests you about the cave - I think this is one of the questions that interests you is were there kind of spiritual ceremonies there? Is that one of the uses of the cave? And I'm wondering if you have ever practiced religion. Because I think one of the musics you're interested in is Gregorian chant.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. Of course, it's a variety of questions. But we can assume that there was probably some religious ceremonies there, maybe shamanistic. Although today we should touch this term only with a pair of pliers because the New Age vapid babble about pseudo-philosophy uses, abuses shamanism. So probably something like that, but we simply do not know. We just do not know. But when you see an altar-like rock and carefully placed, almost like staged, a fresh skull of a cave bear on it and evidence of charcoal around it as if they were fumigating it, you have, it's not illegitimate to say this probably was a staging for a religious ceremony. We do not know. And I think the newer generation of archaeologists points out we have to take it as it is. This is what we see. Whether it was religious or not we will never know.

GROSS: And yourself?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, I had an intense religious phase in my adolescence and I do understand religious sentiment. I do understand the quest for something higher, something beyond us, has been a very dramatic phase in my life and although I'm not a religious person anymore, it has left me in a way, but I do understand people who are deeply religious.

GROSS: Well, Werner Herzog, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HERZOG: You are very welcome.

GROSS: Werner Herzog's new 3-D documentary is called "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." You can watch the scene of Fred Astaire dancing with his shadows on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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