Shockingly, the famously intense German auteur Werner Herzog is actually a pretty funny guy when you get him on the phone. Traces of his bone-dry wit seep through his famous monotone delivery during a conversation about his latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, an extraordinary documentary driven by Herzog's vision. The film is a fascinating exploration of one of the world's great treasures: Chauvet Cave in southern France, an untouched monument to some of the earliest artistic expressions of the human race. Herzog used 3-D cameras to effectively hug the cave walls, crisply capturing the contours of every round formation and dangling stalactite and, most importantly, the beautiful primitive paintings of a host of vanished wildlife, more than 30,000 years old. Here Herzog explains the highly complex process involved in gaining access to this carefully controlled environment, and of the incredible rewards.
Werner Herzog: I was kind of lucky in a way because the French minister of culture turned out to be fan of my films so I didn't have to explain that I was competent as a filmmaker.
Metro Times: You had a name brand that is fairly well-known?
Herzog: Well, he had seen my films from early on and had followed my movies ever since, it's not a question of name brand or anything like that, he had real intimate knowledge of my films. And there was one thing that was in a way convincing, why it was not a French filmmaker and why they let a Bavarian [laughs] like me to do it. I actually proposed to work as an employee of the French ministry of culture and asked for a fee of 1 euro, and in exchange I would give them all the noncommercial rights of the film for cultural events, or using it in classrooms over France and things like that.
MT: Actually the French have such a strong sense of culture and the arts, they are very, very protective of things like this.
Herzog: The French sometimes can be territorial when it comes to their patrimony, but my argument was that this is not the patrimony of France alone, it's a gift for the human race.
MT: You've said that cave art was influential on your early curiosity about the world?
Herzog: Yeah, it was my first independent awakening of my own intellectual fascination with art, in my earlier adolescence; I think I was maybe 12 or 13 years old.
MT: Had you ever been to Lascaux caverns or any of the other Paleolithic art sites?
Herzog: No, I have not seen any of the caves. Lascaux, by the way, is shut down categorically for more than 20 years because too many tourists were in there, and human breath created a mold on the walls that is progressing, or cannot be controlled easily.
MT: And they definitely wanted to prevent that in this case?
Herzog: Yes, in this cave in particular, what's left is a perfect time capsule. In prehistoric times, a huge cataclysm of rocks sealed off the entrance for more than 20,000 years. Everything in the cave is completely fresh paintings, footprints, cave bear bones. With only a little metal walkway inserted. The cave bear itself became extinct more than 20,000 years ago.
MT: To see rhinos on walls in southern France ...
Herzog: Extinct by now, wooly rhinos, wooly mammoths, extinct cave lions, cave bears — most of the animals depicted are long extinct.
MT: Just to breathe the air in the cave must be an extraordinary sensation.
Herzog: Yes, and the silence in there. I mean, when you hold your breath, you hear your own heartbeat. When you look next to you, you see footprints that are fresh, you see paintings completely and wonderfully accomplished, and it was made by people who lived there 32,000 years ago.
MT: Do you feel they were simply reporting the beauty they saw, or was it spiritual? Just speculating obviously. ...
Herzog: We do not know, we have no clear idea. Probably, we can speculate only probably, some rituals were involved. Significant that all these animals that were depicted were the very powerful ones: the wooly mammoth, the rhino, the bison, the lions. Not all of these animals you would hunt. You would not hunt the lion; it would be rather the other way around.
MT: There was some sort of driving compulsion to enter those caves and make art of this kind. ...
Herzog: It is the compulsion of modern man. This is where you are witness of the awakening of the modern human soul. Art, figurative representation, sculptures, there is evidence of flutes. It is simply mind-boggling.