Werner Herzog delves into origins of art in his new film 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'
An interview with filmmaker Werner Herzog ("Fitzcarraldo"), who was granted restricted access to Chauvet Cave in southern France to make a 3-D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." The film, which opens May 6, captures spectacular images of 32,000-year-old paintings.
Special to The Seattle Times
Discovered in 1994, Chauvet Cave in southern France contains the oldest examples of cave art from the Paleolithic era, twice as old as other cave art in the same region. Filmmaker Werner Herzog ("Fitzcarraldo") was granted restricted access to the fragile setting in 2010 to make a 3-D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which opens May 6.
Herzog captures spectacular images of 32,000-year-old paintings of ice-age animals (lions, rhinos, horses, deer), ancient footprints and much else, all while contemplating what Cro-Magnon artists might have thought about existence. "Cave" has a way, typically for Herzog, of making something so removed from our ordinary lives seem accessibly, understandably human. He spoke by phone from New York.
Q: The subject of Chauvet Cave seems unusually personal for you.
A: Cave paintings have engaged me since my earliest intellectual awakening, in my adolescence. It was a fascination that came out of nowhere, not from my family or school or peers. I still feel the shudder of awe I experienced as a boy opening a book about cave paintings. Since then I have followed developments and new discoveries.
It took almost a year to get permission from the French Ministry of Culture, as well as the regional government of that area of southern France and the collective of scientists involved in this work. Any one of them could have said no, and it would have been over.
I proposed that the French government let me film as an employee, and I asked for a fee of one euro. In return, I gave them a film for free with all noncommercial rights. We had a very short time and a very limited crew, so we had to work fast. But it was an extraordinary opportunity and privilege.
Q: What is it like to be in that cave?
A: It's just an overwhelming feeling of awe. You sense somehow this is the origin of the modern human soul; this is the origin of art. Of course, we know around the same time of these paintings other Cro-Magnon artists were making little statuettes, Venus figurines and flutes. There is evidence of the beginnings of religious beliefs. It is stunning that at the same time Neanderthals, who had no culture, were still roaming the landscape. They became extinct 5,000 or 7,000 years later.
Q: Do we know what humans used the cave for?
A: Not entirely. Humans didn't live in there; they didn't cook in there. It was partly inhabited by hibernating cave bears. There's one footprint of a more-or-less 8-year-old child, next to the footprint of a wolf. Were they together, or were the marks made centuries apart? It's fascinating. All the animal and human activity in the cave took place over thousands of years. Yet all the art, tracks and markings look equally fresh.
Q: The paintings look like the work of artists with a sense of form, movement and dramatic style.
A: Yes, certainly. It's fairly certain that one famous part, the panel of horses, was done by one artist with a recognizable style. However, there are other paintings where, through radiocarbon dating, we can say a reindeer was started by somebody, but somebody else completed it 5,000 years later. That's completely mind-boggling.
Q: Those horses really made me think of the 20th-century artist Marc Chagall.
A: Yes. There could be some modality to it. Marc made those famous blue horses. Also, there is a rock pendant we show with the only partial depiction in the cave of a human being. It's actually the lower part of a female nude, and there's a bison hovering over this partial female body, almost like embracing this body.
Tens of thousands of years later, like a distant echo, a distant dream, you have Picasso making a whole series of etchings of the Minotaur and the woman. It's very mysterious, a motif we find in modern art having its origins 32,000 years ago.
Q: The film fits with your oldest themes about finding something essentially human in remote experience.
A: Yes, I'm sure it fits perfectly into the films I've made. I'm recently working on a film about death row. There will be one long film. But I have such intense footage I may also make three or four shorter films of individual cases, a little miniseries with the umbrella title "Gazing into the Abyss."
Suddenly it dawned on me the film about Chauvet Cave is also gazing into the dark abyss, into the recesses of human prehistory. Many of my films, "Grizzly Man" or "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," it's always the same thing, looking very deep into what constitutes human beings, what is the status of our human condition.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published April 23, 2011, was changed on April 25, 2011. A previous version of this story reported the original Seattle release date of the film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." The release date was changed to May 6, 2011, after the story appeared.
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