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Werner Herzog: ‘Avatar Makes Me Cringe!’

At the Toronto Film Festival, Werner Herzog premiered his first, strange foray into 3-D: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France, which is filled with ancient cave paintings and was only discovered in 1994. We spoke to Herzog about the film’s radioactive albino crocodiles (which are actually alligators and not radioactive), the time he worked as a tennis ball boy for six months to save up $28 for a book of cave-painting pictures (ahem), and about his distaste for Avatar and James Cameron’s misty Na’vi nature-utopianism: “This kind of New Age sort of thing!” Herzog ranted. “I’m allergic against group sessions of yoga!” For more, read on.

So, of course you’re making a 3-D film about ancient cave paintings …

But we have even wilder stuff in the new film! Radioactive albino crocodiles!

All right then. Why don’t we start with that: Tell me about these crocodiles.
Well, it’s a postscript in the film, because there’s a huge nuclear plant in the vicinity of the cave, something like twenty miles away, and with a surplus of warm water from this nuclear plant. A huge area of greenhouses were built on it with a jungle in it and hundreds of crocodiles and there’s some offspring that are albino crocodiles. These radioactive albino crocodiles are very, very wild and I kept saying to the production, “You might have to carry me out in a straitjacket at the end of the production, but these crocodiles are gonna be in it!”

Are they linked to the cave paintings in any way?
Well, no. No. No, it is linked: There’s also Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadow in it, in the springtime! You have to see the film, it’s quite coherent; it’s not just a whim.

Okay, let’s just start at the beginning. When did you decide to make a film about these caves?
Fairly recently. There was something long dormant in me because my intellectual fascination about cave paintings began when I was something like 12 or 13. They were the first thing that interested me beyond school or what I had heard from my family. I was deeply fascinated by this and wanted to buy a book that I saw in the display window of the bookstore, but I didn’t have the money for it. Immediately, I started to save. I worked as a ball boy in tennis courts. It took me about half a year until I had $28 to get it. It was just a wonderful moment when I finally bought the book and opened it and it’s still in me: this kind of deep, deep excitement.

Hmmm … So what appeals to you now?
The accomplishment. It’s as if the modern human soul awakened with one burst of creativity and achieved these highly accomplished paintings. They are just totally incredible. And more than twice as old and the oldest paintings we know. Like, the famous ones in Lascaux are only 14,000 years back, but this is 32,000 years back. And at that time, Neanderthal men were still roaming the landscape and the Alps was overgrown by 9,000 feet of thick ice. The sea level was 300 feet lower; as a hunter, you could walk across the dry English Channel.

When you look at the cave, what do you see?
So much was unexpected. I never knew how beautiful the cave was, like Alice in Wonderland: crystal cathedrals of stalactites and stalagmites. Lots of bones, 4,000 bones, skulls of cave bears that are extinct by now and the paintings are so accomplished. And some of it looks very familiar. Some of it looks like such great art. But at the same time, you have a lot of animals depicted that are extinct: woolly rhino, mammoth, cave bear, cave lions, all animals that are tens of thousands of years extinct. And it’s totally stunning to see that. And the other thing is the three dimensionality. Because a cave is not just flat walls. It has a dramatic sort of bulges and niches. The artist somehow used a big protruding bulge for the hump of a bison or, from a niche, a horse comes walking out and looks at you and it’s just absolutely fantastic. They use the drama of the formation of the cave.

Is that why you shot it in 3-D?
When you see this, you will instantly understand. It was instantly clear that this was imperative to do it in 3-D. There’s no way out. We are probably the only film crew that was ever been allowed to be in the cave to record because it’s hermetically sealed and only a few scientists are allowed in. The document is something which allows an audience into the cave to understand how the painters use the dynamics and the drama of the cave itself for the paintings. 3-D, per se, doesn’t interest me. In this case, it was imperative. No way out. If you see the film, you would instantaneously know that was the right decision.

These 3-D cameras, they can often be pretty enormous, what was it like working in the cave?
Problematic. Because we were only allowed to bring three people with me. We were only allowed to carry as much as we could carry in our hands. We were only allowed to move along a metal walkway, which was two feet wide, and never step off it. We were only allowed three fairly small light panels, which would emit cold light. And in the darkness, we only had four hours per day for a week. Inside the cave, we had to actually rebuild our camera in semi-darkness on a 60-centimeter-wide walkway. Huge restrictions. But we were fine with that and got away with wonderful footage.

How do you put together your team?
Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger and Eric Sonar, but there’s a 3-D specialist who designed most of the software in the computer programs. I think even Avatar used some of this software. He comes from Estonia and is an absolute computer nerd, but he was wonderful.

Speaking of Avatar, did you see it?
Avatar I saw. And quite a few times I took off the glasses, the 3-D glasses, because it made me dizzy. But it’s okay. You do the big fireworks once a year, you see a film like that. But this was my only 3-D film and I decided I wouldn’t overdo the 3-D effect. You can do it milder and not as dramatic.

How do you use 3-D subtly? Nobody else does.
Yeah, it’s like when you had the first color films from Japan in the fifties. There was a shocking red kimono and the deep blue next to it — the green one and a yellow one. You had to extol all the colors. When we had all the stereo films like Apocalypse Now, it was always big effects and big explosions and hardly ever a quiet moment. So I said to my team, we are handling it very casually and almost naturally, as if we almost had 40 years or a decade of 3-D experience behind us: We don’t have to make a big fuss about it.

Returning to Avatar: James Cameron’s message, if there is one, is that nature is lovely and positive and naturally good — and that’s the opposite of everything you’ve ever said …
Let’s not talk about the message! It makes me cringe, this kind of New Age sort of thing! I’m allergic against New Age, like I’m allergic against group sessions of yoga. [Avatar] makes me cringe, but it doesn’t matter if that’s the message of the film. Let’s only talk about the 3-D. [Avatar] has great accomplishments but sometimes, as I said, I took off the glasses because it made me dizzy.

Will you return to 3-D?
No. Not in the foreseeable future because all the next projects wouldn’t be right for 3-D, and I’m not a great advocate of 3-D because we’re not very comfortable by being forced to see 3-D. We have a dominant eye, the brain is selective, and the other eye only peripherally notices we are in three dimensions. When I talk to you person-to-person, I would never notice that we’re in a three-dimensional space. The brain is selective. When we are forced to see 3-D all the time, it is not very comfortable. As human beings, we are not really made for permanent enforcement of three dimensions. Maybe you have it as a basketball player in the NBA, you have to know how the teammates and opponents are moving and you have to know where the basket is in the depth of the field. So during a basketball game, you’re full 3-D, but the moment they’re in the locker room, they certainly switch it off and they see each other when they talk only peripherally in 3-D. So it’s fine for the fireworks, but otherwise it doesn’t give you space — there’s just too much and there’s no room for your own fantasy and emotions. A romantic comedy would probably never be made in 3-D; it would be counterproductive.

I’m sure someone will try …
No, it’s too complex to discuss it here, but my dictum is we probably will not see a romantic comedy in 3-D. It would not be productive. And you see, it’s not like we have black-and-white TV and now everything is color TV. Cinema will not be taking over completely by 3-D. That’s only a hype. Expect the next 400 years of romantic comedies still in 2-D.

How do you feel about this shift to digital cinema and distribution?
Well, we are in a massive shift and nobody knows exactly where it’s going to lead us. But since we have so much shifting into the digital domain and into the Internet and downloading and streaming and whatever, so we don’t know exactly where we’re going to end up, but it will solidify. We will have more stable situations fairly soon because technology will lead us in a clear direction. It’s just wonderful to see how very much alive cinema is and how incredible these fantasies are. When you think everything has been discovered in cinema, it’s just starting the next moment again.

What’s the most recent film that felt like that for you?
I saw Errol Morris’s film Tabloid here in Toronto. It’s just absolutely wonderful. Strange and disturbing and puzzling and deep in scrutinizing into the abyss of the human soul. We had a wonderful discussion discourse in front of an audience yesterday afternoon. It was absolutely wonderful.

What are you working on after the festival?
I just released a film ten days ago called Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, like tundra, about hunters in Siberia, which is not actually my film but a Russian filmmaker’s film, a four-hour film and I made an international version of it, one and a half hours with new narration, my voice narrating it, new music, and new editing and whatever.

You’ve never done that before.
It was the sheer joy of doing something which I liked a lot. And in the last three months, I also started to shoot on death row for a film that I continue now. I’m not an activist; I do not want to make an activist film. For reason of deep principle, I’m against capital punishment. I also wrote a screenplay for an epic film. Next week, I’ll write another screenplay for another feature film. I still have many a good story in me. One actually is a wild love story.

Do you think you will work with Christian Bale or Nicolas Cage again?
It depends on what sort of role I have. I could say that Nicolas Cage wouldn’t be a good Kasper Hauser. He’s good — but you know what I mean. We love to work with each other and I hope one day there will be a project where I can say, “Nicolas, you must do this now.” Or to Christian Bale. They know they have been better with me than ever before. When actors work with me, they’re always at their best. And they know it, they all know.

Werner Herzog: ‘Avatar Makes Me Cringe!’