Werner Herzog on the Colbert Report - June 6, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog

• Country: USA
• Year: 2010
• Language: English
• Producer: Erik Nelson, Adrienne Ciuffo
• Executive Producer: Erik Nelson, Dave Harding, Julian Hobbs, Tabitha Jackson
• Runtime: 95'
• Premiere: TIFF Toronto September 13, 2010

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Werner Herzog gains exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of southern France, capturing the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind in their astonishing natural setting. He puts 3-D technology to a profound use, taking us back in time over 30,000 years.

Werner Herzog is a wizard at conjuring unforgettable visions, from the ship dragged over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo to the Antarctic landscape in Encounters at the End of the World. Now he brings us the earliest known visions of mankind: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave art of southern France, created more than thirty thousand years ago. By comparison, the famous cave art of Lascaux is roughly half as old. Since Chauvet’s discovery in 1994, access has been extremely restricted due to concerns that overexposure, even to human breath, could damage the priceless drawings. Only a small number of researchers have ever seen the art in person.

Herzog gained extraordinary permission to film the caves using lights that emit no heat. But Herzog being Herzog, this is no simple act of documentation. He initially resisted shooting in 3D, then embraced the process, and now it’s hard to imagine the film any other way. Just as Lascaux left Picasso in awe, the works at Chauvet are breathtaking in their artistry. The 3D format proves essential in communicating the contoured surfaces on which the charcoal figures are drawn. Beyond the walls, Herzog uses 3D to render the cave’s stalagmites like a crystal cathedral and to capture stunning aerial shots of the nearby Pont-d’Arc natural bridge. His probing questions for the cave specialists also plunge deep; for instance: “What constitutes humanness?”


In an essay titled “Why I Hate 3-D (And You Should Too),” the critic Roger Ebert wrote that he could only be reconciled to the format by a filmmaker like Herzog. Cave of Forgotten Dreams promises to both open and blow the minds of similar skeptics.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams was triggered by an article in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, who tried to gain access to the Chauvet caves and finally wrote her piece based on photos and interviews. I recently joined Thurman at a screening for her first experience of Chauvet in 3D. Her response when the lights came up: “It’s a miracle.”
Thom Powers


 

Full credits

Producer:
Erik Nelson, Adrienne Ciuffo
Executive Producer: Erik Nelson, Dave Harding, Julian Hobbs, Tabitha Jackson
Cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger
Editor: Joe Bini, Maya Hawke
Sound: Eric Spitzer
Music: Ernst Reijseger
International Sales Agent:
Submarine Entertainment
Production Company: Creative Differences Productions, Inc.

Los Angeles Times (Sept.14, 2010)
Is Werner Herzog's new 3-D documentary a huge forward leap or total folly?
Werner Herzog is perhaps the world's most unlikely evangelist for 3-D movies. After all, he's only seen one in his life, James Cameron's "Avatar," which clearly underwhelmed him. "I had to take my glasses off several times," he told me the other day. "I felt uncomfortable seeing 3-D images nonstop. It was very difficult for my mind to follow."
On the other hand, Herzog is perhaps the person best suited to give 3-D a much-needed jolt of artistic credibility. If the 68-year-old German filmmaker, best known for such uncompromising work as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo" and the 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man," is willing to embrace the medium, then maybe someday it might be recognized as having some benefit beyond helping Hollywood squeeze more money out of moviegoers with sky-high ticket prices.
The true test of Herzog's adoption will come Monday night when his new 3-D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I visited Herzog at the Dolby Lab in Burbank on Wednesday, the filmmaker was clearly a bit skittish, since he had a deadline staring him in the face and an unfinished film on his hands. He had agreed to give me an exclusive peek at nearly 30 minutes of the film, which as of Wednesday was the only completed footage from the 90-minute documentary. When I arrived at 10 a.m., Herzog's cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, was asleep, having worked nonstop all night doing color corrections for the film.
"You've seen 30 minutes more of the film than I have," said Erik Nelson, the film's producer (and frequent Herzog collaborator), who has bankrolled the film along with the History Channel, which owns the television rights to the film. Nelson and Herzog are taking the project to Toronto in hopes of finding a theatrical distributor. "Werner is really out of his comfort zone here. He's been figuring things out as we went along -- there's a lot of go-for-broke technology getting tried out for the first time." To make things even more nerve-racking, the film is debuting Monday at the festival's brand-new Bell Lightbox center, which has never screened a 3-D movie before.
"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" takes us on a visually striking journey back in time, 32,000 years to be exact, to view the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave art in the South of France, which was discovered in 1994 and represents perhaps the earliest known visions of mankind. Until now, no one had been able to document the art on the cave walls, since only a select few scientists have been allowed inside the caves. Judith Thurman, whose New Yorker article triggered Nelson's interest in the film, wasn't allowed inside -- her piece was based on photos and interviews.
As it turns out, when Nelson approached Herzog about doing the film, he was preaching to the converted. As a boy in Germany, Herzog had been mesmerized by a book about cave paintings that he saw in a store window. Practically penniless, he got a job as a tennis ball boy to earn enough money to buy the book. "I'd sneak into the store every week to make sure no one had bought it," he explained. "After six months, I had enough money to pay for it. The deep amazement it inspired in me is with me to this day. I remember a shudder of awe possessing me as I opened its pages."
If you're a fan of Herzog's documentaries, which are often narrated by the filmmaker, you know that this is how he talks all the time. His language is full of gravely described omens and portents, as if he were living in the time of Wagner or Edgar Allan Poe. Happily, his observations are often laced with sly humor. At one point in his new film, one of the cave specialists Herzog interviews reveals that when he was younger he'd performed in the circus. "What were you, if I may ask?" Herzog says. "A lion tamer?"
As luck would have it, one of the biggest fans of Herzog's work was the French minister of culture, who after meeting with the filmmaker and offering fulsome praise for his work, gave him the green light to film inside the cave this spring. To make everyone feel comfortable about the arrangement, Herzog volunteered to serve as an employee of the ministry. "I proposed that they pay me one Euro and I even volunteered to pay the tax on that Euro in Germany," he said. "So I really delivered the movie for free to France."
The logistics for the shoot were complex. Herzog's access was limited to four hours a day for six days. Once his four-person crew was inside the cave, they couldn't leave a narrow 2-foot wide walkway installed to preserve the damp floor of the cave. Herzog had to use lighting that didn't emit any heat. "It wasn't caprice," he says. "In one of the other historic caves, the exhalations of tourists' breath caused mold, which forced the government to shut down any access. Still, it was a challenge. We were shooting in three dimensions, but we could only move in one dimension, since you couldn't step around anyone without leaving the walkway."
The crew -- a cinematographer, sound man, assistant and Herzog, who worked the lights -- could only bring in whatever equipment they could carry in their hands. The 3-D cameras were largely assembled inside the cave. "We have very little time, very little light and very few tools," he explained. "So we essentially built this very complex apparatus inside the cave, with no support from the outside, since the doors were always closed behind us to preserve the cave's atmosphere."
As the film reveals, what Herzog found inside was astounding.
The cave drawings, made largely with charcoal and some ochre, are sleek, supple and surprisingly modern. The drawings of bison hug the contours of the cave, a bulge in the rock serving as the animal's hump. Woolly mammoths are depicted in eight different phases, as if they were frames in an animated film.
For Herzog, 3-D was the perfect tool to capture the drawings, since after all, the cave that held the drawings was akin to a modern-day theater or gallery where primitive people could view, by torchlight, this mysterious new form of art. "Once you see the cave with your own eyes, you realize it had to be filmed in 3-D," Herzog says. "I've never used the process in the 58 films I made before and I have no plans to do it ever again, but it was important to capture the intentions of the painters. Once you saw the crazy niches and bulges and rock pendants in the walls, it was obvious it had to be in 3-D."
In other words, Herzog is only a temporary convert to the 3-D cause. To him, the technology is far more constricting than liberating. "We shouldn't ever have a romantic comedy in 3-D, because we, the audience, have an emotional approach to the storytelling which leaves open lot of narrative possibilities," he explained. "You wonder as you watch -- will the young man and the woman find each other? Fall in love? We start to fantasize, which you could never do in 3-D, where you would be in the handcuffs of the technological effects. With cinema, your fantasies should always be free."
Herzog shrewdly realized that with 3-D, sometimes less is more. He says that when they began the shoot, he told his cinematographer to underplay the effects. "I said, 'Let's deal with 3-D as if we had 30 or 40 years of history behind us. We should be completely casual, as if we weren't trying to impress everyone with the scope of it.'" Of course, nothing is ever casual with Herzog. Judging from the portions of the film I saw, he has offered us a ringside seat to gaze upon the beginning of man's exploration of art. And he has even made a great case for 3-D, since if there were ever a movie that encouraged us to let our fantasies run free, it would be "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."

Toronto Review (Sept. 14, 2010)
A Natural Museum In 3-D: Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”
by Eric Kohn 
In recent years, Werner Herzog’s sly observations on the ways the universe in wondrously strange documentaries such as “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World” have taken on cult status apart from his existing place in the history of German cinema. Viral videos contain uncanny imitations of the filmmaker’s distinct Bavarian accent reading every children’s classic from “Where’s Waldo?” to “Curious George.” The reality is that Herzog could make the phonebook sound interesting, but he usually aims much higher than that. His latest non-fiction outing, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” proves that point again: It’s an extraordinary production feat that transcends his personal whims while giving them room to shine.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” takes a fascinating 3-D journey into the inner sanctum of heretofore undocumented cave paintings in the south of France. Destined to delight Herzog fans for its offbeat ruminations on the evolution of creativity, the movie also derives ample philosophical weight from the sheer beauty and inherent mystery of the subject at hand. Guiding the audience with his typical voiceover narration, Herzog delves into “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture,” the etchings on the walls of the 1,300-foot Chauvet Cave, presumably home to the oldest paintings in the world. Owned by the French government and restricted to a handful of experts, the cave remains as mysterious as the history of its contents.
Herzog naturally plays up the enigma at hand with epic grandeur, occasionally overdoing it but usually hitting the mark. Introducing the setting with a majestic crane shot (particularly immersive in 3-D), his camera soars above the cave and surveys the desolate landscape. Unleashing cosmic observations about “the abyss of time” and the like, Herzog ventures into the darkness with his small team, carefully illuminating the 35,000-year-old artwork within. The profoundly magical aura of the footage ranges from charcoal etchings of animals in motion (“almost like a form of proto-cinema”) to hints of attempts at self-portraiture (“as if the human soul was awakened within them”).
Aside from the Herzogian idiosyncrasies, however, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” contains the musings of real experts. Archaeologists analyze the ancient painters’ creative use of the cave’s spatial definition to tell stories and create illusions of motion. The personalities involved in the cave study receive less overt scrutiny than the eccentric Antarctica residents in “Encounters at the End of the World,” where Herzog expressed as much interest in the researchers as their work. Still, he urges the cave experts to reach beyond academic conclusions and look at the big picture, and they happily indulge themselves. “I’m a scientist,” says one, “but I’m a human, too.”
Having thoroughly explored the paintings to the extent that he’s allowed to film them, Herzog launches on a less immediately thrilling tangent to explore the possible lifestyles of the inhabitants. Muting the awe factor, this segment downgrades some of the movie’s intrinsic appeal. But just when Herzog appears to veer too far off-topic, he makes an instant comeback by showing one of his experts playing the Star Spangled Banner on a primitive flute. As usual, human progress gets the sublimely absurd Herzogian treatment, with modern and primordial sights and sounds becoming whole. Nothing can top utterly zany inspiration of the postscript, which somehow involves a nuclear power plant and radioactive albino crocodiles. Ironically, it turns out the 3-D effects comprise the sole aspect of the movie where Herzog issues restraint.
And yet, given the unprecedented nature of the project, Herzog’s filmmaking efforts are tightly controlled and closer to conventions of the form than his other recent non-fiction ventures. He sticks to the practical goal of exposing the art, and concludes by dedicating the movie to the cave’s discoverers. Apparently, plans are underway to open a replica of the cave for the general public, but Herzog beats them to the punch by putting this natural museum on the big screen.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - TRAILER

Ode to the Dawn of Man / Making of music to Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Excerpt)