As allegories for cinema go, it's hard to beat Plato's Allegory of the Cave, even though it preceded the invention of cinema by about 1,300 years. There seem to be limitless interpretations of exactly what Plato's cave would look like, but the gist of the allegory is that some humans are chained in a cave such that they can only stare ahead at the wall upon which shadows are projected from behind them.
Plato loved his allegories. Werner Herzog, not so much. But there seems to be a persistent paradox expressed throughout Herzog's career in that his boundless quest for "pure, transparent imagery" results in work that begs allegorical consideration.
Consider, for example, his new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a 3-D exploration of the astounding and otherwise off-limits Chauvet Cave in France, where over 32,000 years ago some of our ancestors began creating what would be discovered--only in 1994--as some of our oldest and most mystifying art.
Documentary recently spoke with Herzog about the cave, 3-D hype, albino crocodiles, doppelgangers reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas, his current project about death row inmates, The Simpsons, and the feeling of being watched by unseen eyes.
Documentary: As a child you saw a book of the cave paintings and then you saved up to buy the book. I'm wondering how the paintings resonate in your life now.
Werner Herzog: To see the Chauvet Cave and work there has been a phenomenal privilege for me--a childhood dream has come true, which I never expected.
D: Is the film at all about what the caves mean to you, symbolically?
WH: No. I don't feel that way because I never speak about any personal feelings [in the film]. I'm doing my best to present the cave as it is to the world...I've realized when I see the film with audiences that nobody speaks about having seen a film. They all speak of having been in a cave.
D: But I also felt very much like I had just seen a Werner Herzog film.
WH: Of course it is, with wild stuff in it like Fred Astaire.
D: And albino crocodiles.
WH: In the postscript, the film steps into wild, science-fiction fantasies.
D: A very Herzogian maneuver.
WH: In a way, yes.
D: After the audience has been in this awestruck mode, it puts them into a more critical, unfamiliar, if fantastical mode.
WH: The new familiar.
D: 3-D. Its resurgence. On the one hand, it's a means of making the experience seem more real. But when it doesn't work, it emphasizes the artifice of film and takes you out of the movie. And it can be hard to predict when it's going to do one or the other.
WH: This is a very good observation. I still remain a mild skeptic of 3-D. [It] will not take over everything. We have some sort of hype right now, and it is emphasized by the fact that the film industry gets full revenues because there's no piracy possible--at the moment, at least. But we are in our normal daily life not so much attached to seeing in 3-D; the brain has to process too much.
We are basically seeing in 2-D if we sit opposite each other. We could not see the rest of the room or the rest of the landscape in 3-D. One eye is dominant which would see things in 2-D. The other eye is only peripherally seeing 3-D. Only if some dramatic event is happening-a gunman is rushing at you and all of a sudden the brain switches to full 3-D. And of course NBA basketball players are seeing full 3-D during the entire game.
D: The 3-D is very effective in the cave, but in the spear-throwing scene, you're poking fun at the three-dimensional aspect of the film.
WH: A little bit, yes. How he's attacking the camera with his spear, showing how effective the weapon is and so, yes, the whole scene has a funny aspect to it because you can tell the scientist will never kill a horse or a mammoth with his toss.
D: In the film, you mention sensing that the original cave dwellers were observing you- this kind of haunting or maybe even spiritual experience...
WH: No, we have to be very careful with that. I'm not into New Age or any of that kind of crap...These are sensations that occurred to us in some moments, fleetingly. And it occurred very much to the discoverers of the cave. They talk about feeling as if they were looked upon by eyes. Very fleeting and nothing particular, but maybe because the paintings look so incredibly fresh, as if they were left behind yesterday, but yesterday is actually 32,000 years ago.
D: I'd like to shift to the state of documentaries today and this seemingly perennial discussion of some kind of golden age of documentaries.
WH: We are having major shifts in our perception of reality because of the Internet and virtual realities. Even six-year-old children nowadays can say in the movies this was a special effect. And we have artificial realities like WrestleMania or Photoshop or whatever--a huge onslaught on our understanding of reality. So I do believe that cinema today, or documentaries today, have a task to redefine our sense of reality.
D: There's been this surge--well, three films in 2010 in particular that seem to be emerging in the wake of your influence: Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop and I'm Still Here.
WH: I have not seen any of these films. You see, what I'm trying to pass on and make understood is that fact itself does not constitute truth. That's the mistake of cinema vérité, and all the bastard children of cinema vérité. Because facts can create norms, but they do not illuminate us. So this is why in a film like [Cave of Forgotten Dreams] all of a sudden Fred Astaire appears or albino crocodiles--where the film goes into an exuberant mode and our fantasies are activated. That's what I love about this new form of documentaries; I'm not alone anymore. But nobody should be a clone of me.
D: God forbid. A planet of Herzogs.
WH: Whichever path you take away from the mere factual is going to be wonderful.
I don't want to see any more artificial doppelgangers. There are actually these wonderful doppelgangers [of me] on the Internet who read How the Grinch Stole Christmas... However, I have to point out: I'm in one of the next Simpsons episodes on the sixth of March. This is my apotheosis in American popular culture.
D: You're finally a cartoon. It's like being bronzed or something. Are you playing yourself?
WH: No, no. I'm playing a German industrial pharmacist who creates some new sort of LSD used to sedate the unbearable old guys like Grandpa.
D: They've got you pegged.
WH: Yes, of course. I was a paid stooge! I loved this job. They're extremely professional in how they read it to test audiences, just the text and the voices. It's a phenomenal effort and understanding of audience. Totally fascinating. And I had no idea what The Simpsons were. I had to ask them to send me a few DVDs with some samples.
D: Are you working on another film now?
WH: I'm shooting a film called Death Row with death row inmates in Texas and Florida.
D: Knowing you, this isn't going to be a social issue film...
WH: No. Well, you see, all of us do not know how and when we are going to die. But they know everything--the steps of the procedure and the minute when they are going to die. [Making this film is] very disquieting. You look into an abyss wherever you look.
D: As someone whose work has dealt with sociopathic or psychopathic behavior, do you have anything to say about what happened in Arizona?
WH: Well, no, no. You have to be careful with--well, the film is not finished yet. You will see, but one thing I can promise you: The crimes in all the cases that I've seen are monstrous. However, the people who committed the crimes are human. None of them is a monster. They are all human.
Taylor Segrest is a writer and filmmaker, and most recently wrote and co-produced the feature-length documentary Darwin (2011).