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01 April 2011

Werner Herzog and Another Dimension

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Werner Herzog kicks things off by asking me a question: “Did you see the film in 3D?” Although a “mild sceptic” of the format, he considers it essential to his 28th cinema film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about the paleolithic artwork discovered by the archeologist Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. The Chauvet cave is full of bulging and irregular shapes, and Herzog says that the painters, who had “a quest for depicting movement”, “incorporated the drama of these formations into their art”; for example, a bulge in a rock becomes the neck of a charging bison. “There’s a three-dimensional drama which was understood and utilised by people 32,000 years ago”, he says. Then, shrugging, he adds: “But I’m told that it looks pretty good in 2D as well.”

The French government gave Herzog the unique opportunity of filming, with rigorous restrictions, in the Chauvet cave – “I took it! I took it!” he says, and describes the film as a “big seismic event” for him. He admits that the cave is the film’s chief point of interest: “Everybody speaks of having experienced a cave, nobody talks about having seen a movie.” He evidently sees this as a good thing.

On the morning of our interview, Herzog, who was born in Germany in 1942, is clean-shaven and wearing a black suit. He talks with such animation about the Chauvet cave that I wish I had enjoyed his film more. In his recent documentaries the central point of interest, whatever the ostensible topic, has been the human subjects, usually dreamers and fantasists or the subjects of fantasy – the Dalai Lama in Wheel of Time; Timothy Treadwell, the bear-lover killed by a bear, in Grizzly Man, Graham Dorrington, the aeronautical engineer trying to fly a dirigible over the Guyanan rainforest in The White Diamond. There are two engaging “experimental archeologists” in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one of whom repeatedly – and ineptly – throws spears, the other of whom plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on an imitation paleolithic pipe. But the striving, stargazing characters who really fascinate Herzog have been dead for 30,000 years. The film contains moments of extraordinary beauty but provides little in the way of human interest or drama.

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