Werner Herzog's Documentary Brings Oldest Cave Paintings To Life German filmmaker Werner Herzog was one of the few people permitted to enter a cave in France containing the oldest recorded cave paintings. What he saw — and what he imagined — is the subject of his documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
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Herzog's Doc Brings Prehistoric Paintings To Life

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Herzog's Doc Brings Prehistoric Paintings To Life

Herzog's Doc Brings Prehistoric Paintings To Life

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DAVID BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Filmmaker Werner Herzog's latest documentary, "Into the Abyss," about death row prison inmates, is in theaters now. His previous one, called "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," has just been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It's also been released for those who have the latest in high-tech TVs, in 3-D, which is the way it was initially projected in select theaters. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is a documentary Chauvet Cave in France. It's a cave that features cave paintings which are 30,000 years old, the oldest ones known to scientists. 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 are no longer allowed to enter it. The cinematic results are remarkable, enabling us to see 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. Terry Gross spoke with Herzog earlier this year when "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" was released to theaters in 3-D.

TERRY GROSS:Werner Herzog, welcome back to FRESH AIR.


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

WERNER 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.

TERRY 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?


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

WERNER 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.

TERRY 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.

WERNER 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.

TERRY 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?

WERNER 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.

TERRY GROSS:So this happens with Paleolithic man.

WERNER HERZOG:Yes, it does.

TERRY 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?

WERNER 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 beyond all this, I think I was just very, very lucky.

TERRY 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?

WERNER 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.

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

WERNER 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...


TERRY GROSS:Over the cave-bear print. Yeah.


WERNER HERZOG:Yes, you just don't do this. And there's a footprint of a child, maybe eight-year-old, this is 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.

TERRY GROSS:Everything is covered in this calcified crystal. What does that come from?

WERNER 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.

DAVID BIANCULLI:Werner Herzog, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVID BIANCULLI:Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with Werner Herzog. His "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" documentary is now out on DVD, including 3-D.

TERRY 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?

WERNER 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 penduns(ph) 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 views of penduns(ph) or bulge of the rock, now it's 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.

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


TERRY 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. And to the proportions of the cave. So did you have to customize your equipment in order to even bring it in?

WERNER 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 open the steel door for entering and they open 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 into 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 screw drivers, and with the help of torchlight we built our own camera for closer shots. But – which you can do if you have real, real competent, good people with you.

TERRY 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, using 3-D for special effects. What did you learn about visual perception from working in 3-D?

WERNER HERZOG: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 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.

TERRY 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.

WERNER HERZOG:Yes, most certainly, yes.

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

WERNER HERZOG:I couldn't help it.

I could not help it.

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

WERNER HERZOG:Yes, that is correct. Yeah, it is actually arguably or for me certainly the greatest single 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 certain panels, there's evidence of some fires on the ground. They were not fore 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 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.

TERRY 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 like 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.

WERNER HERZOG:Yes. Of course it's a variety of questions. But we can assume 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 alter like rock and very carefully placed almost like staged, 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 archeologists 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.

TERRY GROSS:And yourself?

WERNER 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.

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

WERNER HERZOG:You are very welcome.

DAVID BIANCULLI:Werner Herzog speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is now out on DVD and 3-D and his new documentary "Into the Abyss" is still in theaters.

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