“What constitutes humanness?” is one of the central questions posed by Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3-D journey into the Chauvet cave paintings in southern France. Herzog doesn't mean it as a rhetorical question: The German director has built a career out of exploring the ways that the extremes of the physical world intersect with the inner reaches of the human soul. In the cave paintings, he seems to have found an ideal crucible for these considerations: the beginnings of art, and a need to come to terms with the imposing and fearsome creatures around us. The legendary filmmaker, who has lived in Los Angeles for many years, sat down with Vulture recently to discuss the very personal nature of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his upcoming film about death row, and why he still hasn’t become an American citizen.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this already, but why 3-D?
Because the cave never has any flat surface. Where the paintings are, the cave has dramatic shapes, bulges, and niches, and these formations were utilized by the painters 3,200 years ago. A bulge would be the neck of a bison charging at you; things like that. This is the only film that I know where you could easily say it was not only legitimate to do it in 3-D, but that it was imperative as well, because this film is probably the only film that will emerge from this cave. It was hard enough to get the permission.
Do you feel like 3-D helps create a direct communication between the image and the viewer?
Not necessarily — because human beings, in 3-D feature films, are strangely remote and artificial. You can see it in Avatar, for example: You do not easily develop a real rapport with the hero. When you have a 2-D film, you immerse yourself completely into the characters, and I believe it is because very often as an audience we develop a parallel story inside of us, a second story of hopes, and visions, and praying for the young lovers to find each other again, and things like that. If there's nothing beyond the fireworks in 3-D, it doesn't explain anything more. You can do a porno in 3-D, but you cannot make a romantic comedy in 3-D — because you're so absorbed with the 3-D aspect of it that you do not develop the inner story as an audience.
Related to that, it seems we are the real protagonists of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Many of your other films usually follow a particular individual, but here that individual is absent, as if we’re supposed to take their place.
This is a very interesting observation. I have seen audiences leaving the theater, like at the Toronto Film Festival, and nobody speaks about being in the movie; they all say, "We have been in this cave." So all of a sudden you are a protagonist and the film doesn’t count at all — which is wonderful to notice. I think for me this is proof that I did it right.
I'm curious about the title. Why “forgotten dreams”?
We have no idea how these people saw their own paintings. Most of the animals depicted don't exist anymore. Woolly mammoth, woolly rhino, cave lion, cave bear, megalosaurus — they're all extinct. Also, you notice this partial depiction of the lower part of a female body and a bison hovering over it — almost embracing it — and it's absolutely mysterious for me how such a very, very distant echo returns in the work of Picasso’s Minotaur et Femme. Of course, Picasso died long before the cave was discovered. How does it happen that there are traces all the way up to this very day, as if it had been some forgotten dream that became recognizable to us?
On that note: Among your other films, Cave of Forgotten Dreams reminded me most of Bells From the Deep, with its notion of a collective dream, even though it's about a very different subject.
When you look at caves, it's a deep gaze into the abyss, into the recesses of time, into the origins of the modern human man. You have a similar thing in Bells From the Deep: pilgrims on thin ice trying to catch a glimpse of the sunken city of Kitezh, which was tossed by an archangel to the bottom of a bottomless lake. It's very interesting you're coming up with that, because right now I'm finishing a film on death row. I filmed with inmates in Texas and Florida. The material I have is so intense and so complex that I decided to do a mini-series of shorter films for television, and each of these films will be one individual case. I thought I would call it not Death Row, but Michael Perry on Death Row, Joseph Garcia on Death Row, and so on. But what was missing was an umbrella title. All of a sudden I had a feeling I should call it Gaze Into an Abyss or Gaze Into the Abyss: Michael Perry on Death Row. And it dawned on me; this is the title for all of my films!
Over your career, people have taken some of your films and ascribed political intentions to them, even though you’ve never really made a political film. Death Row seems like it’ll be one of those cases, since death row is such a politically charged subject.
Of course it is, but the film avoids it, mostly. I state to every single inmate on death row two things, very briefly, "(1) I'm not an advocate of capital punishment. No further discussion. (2) This is not going to be a platform for you to prove your innocence. I'm not in the business of guilt or innocence. Are you still prepared to talk to me?"
I do it as a formal entrance. I will probably cut it away in almost all instances. Maybe in one single moment, I'll keep it. Otherwise, for me, being a German, I have no argument. I have only the most primitive of arguments and that is that a state under no circumstances must be entitled to kill anyone off, for any reason, period. You had tens of thousands of cases of capital punishment under the Nazis, you had a systematic program for exterminating schizophrenics in the euthanasia program, and you had a state-sponsored, organized, monumental crime in the Holocaust, killing 6 million people. Language doesn't have an adequate word to describe this monstrosity. For me, there's no debate. However, America has not had this experience. And I'm a guest in your country. If I were a voting citizen, I probably would have a more combative attitude.
You’ve lived here for many years. Have you thought about becoming a U.S. citizen?
I find it difficult to become a citizen of a country that has capital punishment. And I'm also too intertwined with my own language and culture.
Do you think you'll make another film in Germany?
If I had a story, I would immediately go to Germany and do it. It’s always whatever pushes me hardest.