A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Interview: Werner Herzog on the Birth of Art
Volume 64 Number 2, March/April 2011
(Courtesy Marc Valsella)
Last March, preeminent filmmaker Werner Herzog was given unprecedented access to Chauvet Cave in southeastern France to film the site's Paleolithic art. The result, his film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which will be released this spring, is a document of some of humankind's earliest and most extraordinary paintings. Since the cave was discovered in December 1994, few people, mostly researchers, have seen the artwork, owing to the cave's extremely delicate climate and concerns about preserving the ancient paintings. But the film is more than a tour of the cave. It is an exploration of what the science of archaeology is revealing about the Aurignacian people—Europe's first artists—and the origins of the modern human mind. Part of the film focuses on the work of Jean Clottes, the former director of research for the Chauvet Cave Project, and Jean-Michel Geneste, the project's current director, and what their work tells us about how the Aurignacian people may have lived their lives and connected to their world through art. In November, ARCHAEOLOGY senior editor Zach Zorich was invited to Herzog's Manhattan apartment for an extended interview about the unique challenges of making this film, the kinship among artists across the ages, and Herzog's archaeologist grandfather.
ARCHAEOLOGY: There are hundreds of ancient sites in the world that have really fascinating artwork. What was it that attracted you to Chauvet?
WERNER HERZOG: It is one of the greatest and most sensational discoveries in human culture and, of course, what is so fascinating is that it was preserved as a perfect time capsule for 20,000 years. The quality of the art, which is from a time so far, so deep back in history, is stunning. It's not that we have what people might call the primitive beginnings of painting and art. It is right there as if it had burst on the scene fully accomplished. That is the astonishing thing, to understand that the modern human soul somehow awakened. It is not a long slumber and a slow, slow, slow awakening. I think it was a fairly sudden awakening. But when I say "sudden" it may have gone over 20,000 years or so. Time does not factor in when you go back into such deep prehistory.
ARCHAEOLOGY: You are famous for taking on some very difficult challenges in filmmaking, especially in Fitzcarraldo where you hauled a steamboat over a mountain. In this case, the limitations were of a different nature. You had to stay on a two-foot-wide walkway, and had only a short period of time to film.
HERZOG: Yes, and having only three light panels. Of course, we were only allowed to take along what we could carry in our own hands, so we couldn't move heavier equipment into the cave. The most intense challenge came from the fact that when filming in 3-D, you cannot move a 3-D camera around like a regular film camera. If you move, for example, closer to an object, the lenses actually have to be closer together, and when you are fairly close you even have to make them "squint" slightly. We had to reconfigure our camera to take close-up shots of the paintings. It is a high-precision, technical thing to have to do, in semidarkness on a narrow walkway. We had a fairly brief period of time to film. When the researchers left in early April, I had the cave practically undisturbed for filming, but only for six days, and only four hours each day. Of course, later in the season the carbon dioxide level in the branch of the cave where you have the Panel of the Lions becomes dangerously high. In other parts of the cave there is a fairly high level of radon, and it has a cumulative effect on your lungs. So, we had to move around between toxic gases and radioactive gases.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Did these shooting conditions limit the story you were able to tell?
HERZOG: No, I was able to tell what I had to tell, but we had to be completely focused, very fast, and very professional. So, when I am asked, what was your feeling inside the cave? Did it somehow strike you like a religious experience? No, it was professionalism that was foremost. But there were moments where the crew moved out and I just stayed behind for five minutes, which I apparently was not supposed to do. But I did it anyway and the guards knew I wouldn't do anything foolish so I stood there in silence and looked.
ARCHAEOLOGY: What was it like in those five minutes?
HERZOG: It is really awesome, absolutely awesome.
ARCHAEOLOGY: The film seems to convey what it is really like to be in the cave. How were you able to capture that?
HERZOG: We talked a lot about how still the cave is. When you hold your breath you can actually hear your own heartbeat. I said to Jean Clottes, we have to have this in the film, even if it's staged, even if it's a scripted text. But of course, it is not fake. It is exactly what you experience when you are in there. In making the film we paid attention to details, to sound, to music. That's what moviemaking is all about. It's about steering the flow of the viewers' imagination, to awaken the imagination, to sensitize them to sound, to sensitize them to imagery, to sensitize them to life in general. The movie proceeds very, very carefully and very methodically. And this is why at the end when you see these endless shots and pans of the paintings you see them with a different depth of feeling than if you were just going through a catalog. And that's what cinema can accomplish.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Why did you choose to film in 3-D?
HERZOG: 3-D was imperative because I initially thought there were flat walls and paintings in the cave. But there are no flat areas. The drama of the bulges and niches was actually used by the artists. They did it with phenomenal skill, with great artistic skill, and there was something expressive about it, a drama of rock transformed and utilized, in the drama of paintings. This is why it was imperative to shoot in 3-D.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Were there any of the paintings that you found particularly striking or moving?
HERZOG: Yes, the Panel of the Horses and the Panel of the Lions, of course. The lions in particular are just incredible because a whole group of lions is looking, is stalking something. The intensity of their gaze, all looking exactly at something, focusing on something. You don't know exactly on what they focus and it has an intensity of art, of depiction, which is just awesome.
ARCHAEOLOGY: You also say that there is a sense of motion in some of these images, and talk about this as being an early form of animation. Do you feel a connection between what the cave artists at Chauvet were doing and what you were doing as a filmmaker?
HERZOG: Well, there is one moment in the film where I am speaking about the charcoal that was found in the vicinity of the Panel of the Horses, the charcoal fires. There is a row of fires which was used for illumination, but placed in a way that when you are close to the Panel of the Horses your own shadow becomes a part of the image, apparently as an integral part of the staging. Of course in the film, I couldn't help showing Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadow in Swing Time, which is quintessential cinema. In it, a human being, Fred Astaire, is moving with his own shadows and all of a sudden the shadows do something separate and become independent of him, do mischief, and he still catches up and dances with them. It is one of the great moments of cinema.
ARCHAEOLOGY: You admire the cinema of the past, but you have said that the imagery of today's civilization is inadequate, that it is absurd and useless, and that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude as the overcrowding of our planet. Why do you believe that, and how does this film confront that issue?
HERZOG: Well, that's a very condensed form of a more complex thought, which has to do with language and imagery. When you are looking around at images, when you watch television for six consecutive hours, or when you open a catalog from a travel agency, you immediately know those are worn-out images not really adequate to our state of civilization. If you are lagging behind it is dangerous, and it brings decay with it. In America, for example, you have a lot of innovation in language. However, almost worldwide, there are very few attempts to bring images up to the status of our civilization.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Another idea you have mentioned is that you are searching for a new grammar of imagery, and I was wondering how the images of Chauvet Cave play into that, or do they?
HERZOG: That's a very interesting question because my immediate reaction was, what you see there is not just a vocabulary—this is a megaloceros, this is a wooly rhino, this is a lion. Yes, you do have a complete new vocabulary for the first time, but you also have new grammar: How do horses interact with each other? How do lions charge and stalk? It's the entire ensemble, focused on something that we do not see. So there's a very mysterious, obvious grammar of depiction there, narratives, whole stories. And, by the way, the painters of Chauvet are not accountants of truth, of the variety of species. They are not accountants. They are not cinema verité of their time.
ARCHAEOLOGY: They are not creating a taxonomy.
HERZOG: Exactly. They are creating something at a completely different level, something imaginary, probably ritualistic. I say this with necessary caution: probably something interior—the interior landscape of their souls. And it coincides with the landscape near the cave, the Pont d'Arc with this natural arch, which is like a purely Wagnerian opera stage
ARCHAEOLOGY: You are talking about a limestone arch that goes over the river Ardeche.
HERZOG: Yes, what I am trying to say in the movie's voice-over is that this kind of staging of the landscape as an interior landscape does not belong to the German romanticists alone. It belongs to the Aurignacian people, and that makes them immediately familiar to me. The kind of wild, exuberant fantasy and the stylizations. I've done this all my life in my movies. That is why I feel absolutely at home, in a way, when I move into the cave, as strange and as remote and as foreign as some of it is, and beyond the reach of my understanding. But that doesn't matter. There were people out there who created something absolutely fantastic.
ARCHAEOLOGY: And at the end of the film you introduce a postscript, the idea of radioactive mutant albino crocodiles from a nearby animal preserve getting loose and heading for Chauvet. Why did you do that?
HERZOG: It has to do with pure science fiction fantasy. That is the beauty of it. It allows me to introduce the idea that I am not an accountant of truth, that I intensify something, something into an ecstasy of truth instead. I've been very much into the quest for ecstatic truth in all my films.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Do the incredible images in the cave confront this problem of worn-out imagery?
HERZOG: No, not explicitly. But it shows that images burst onto the scene and into our consciousness in a phenomenal way, completely accomplished, and somehow, of course, adequate to the civilization of Aurignacian man, no doubt about it. We should never forget the dexterity of these people. They were capable of creating a flute. It is a high-tech procedure to carve a piece of mammoth ivory and split it in half without breaking it, hollow it out, and realign the halves. We have one indicator of how well their clothing was made. In a cave in the Pyrenees, there is a handprint of a child maybe four or five years old. The hand was apparently held by his mother or father, and ocher was spit against it to get the contours and you see part of the wrist and the contours of a sleeve. The sleeve is as precise as the cuffs of your shirt. The precision of the sleeve is stunning.
ARCHAEOLOGY: You have resisted having the label "artist" applied to you. Were the people of Chauvet artists or craftsmen in your estimation?
HERZOG: In this case, you can clearly say this is art, and you can say it easily. It goes back to a time when there was, for example, no art market, no exhibitions, no galleries. No doubt in my heart that this is art, and it's some of the greatest that the human race ever created, period. It can't get any better, and it hasn't gotten much better. That's a great mystery.
ARCHAEOLOGY: There is a great shot in the film of a painting of a half-woman, half-bison figure that wraps around a stalactite. Until now, the painting has only been photographed from one side. How difficult was it to get that shot considering the constraints of the cave?
HERZOG:Well, we were not allowed to step beyond the walkway. When we were alone and only with the guards, at the end of one of the last days, I said, "let's give it a try." We had a boom for the mike with us, although we had no sound man, and I said to the guards, "If we held the camera man and tied him securely to the boom, could he possibly extend this tiny camera a little bit beyond the walkway?" And they looked at us, and they looked at the camera, and they just nodded and knew we would do it right. We couldn't extend it really far otherwise the pole might have fallen over so we were still limited. But we've seen a little bit more than anyone else could ever see. But in a way it's good that you do not know what is on the other side of this stalactite and how the painting continues. Sometimes it is better to have a big question and no answer.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Why is that?
HERZOG: Because it is much more intriguing. It becomes much more an element that forces us to think, forces us to imagine, forces us to use all our intelligence and all our capacity for vision. And it's the same in archaeology. You hardly ever have full answers and much of the interpretation has to be with a clear vision and understanding of how people would live, let's say, in England in late Neolithic times. How do you imagine it, and how do you visualize it and interpret things? That's the beauty of it, which is beyond the sheer factual findings.
ARCHAEOLOGY: You've talked about how culture conditions the way we interpret images. Have we lost something between the modern day and the time of Chauvet?
HERZOG: No, not lost. We simply have changed. We are fundamentally changed and yet there is something about humanness, there is something about the modern human soul, which awakened during the time of Chauvet, or maybe a little bit earlier, we don't know.
ARCHAEOLOGY: What is your definition of humanness?
HERZOG: I think as Jean-Michel Geneste says, it is an adaptation to the world, language, symbolic representations, including rituals like burial, like probably cannibalism, initiation rites. There is a point where we shift away from a purely material culture.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Do you feel the story that science is telling of Chauvet Cave is inadequate in some way?
HERZOG: No, its not inadequate, and I'm glad that it does not proclaim to have a full explanation. There is a younger generation of archaeologists at work who are very much into declaring the findings as they are and not over-interpreting them. Everything in the previous generations was declared ritualistic and part of ceremonies and the young generation says "maybe, but we do not know." I find it a healthy attitude. It will certainly be the school of archaeology that will prevail in the foreseeable future.
ARCHAEOLOGY: You included quite a bit about the way archaeology is done in this film. As I was doing research for this interview, I was surprised to find out that you actually have a very personal connection to archaeology. Your grandfather, Rudolph Herzog, was an archaeologist who excavated in Greece.
HERZOG: Yes, he discovered and excavated the Asklepieion, on the island of Kos, and that was his life's work in the early twentieth century.
ARCHAEOLOGY: What is the Asklepieion?
HERZOG: Dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, it was like a hospital and resort. I think my grandfather came across it through studying texts. Originally he was a classicist. He was a teacher of ancient Greek at a university, and at that time there were discoveries of texts, and one was a text by Herondas, a fairly unimportant writer. It describes the Asklepieion—two women are in dialogue and describe it. My grandfather set out and left his profession as a classicist behind, a little bit like Schliemann [Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of a city that may be Troy from Homer's Iliad]. He was just barely 30 or so, got married, and took his wife, my grandmother, to the island of Kos.
ARCHAEOLOGY: This would have been the early 1900s.
HERZOG: Yes, and he had an astonishing eye for locations. I have seen, for example, a vast field with all these trees and vineyards. Somehow in the middle of all this he chose to dig and found a late Roman bath. How? Why right there? Or, the Asklepieion, which is high up on the slope of this small mountain ridge on the island. He had a fantastic eye for a situation that was, let's say, 2,000 years earlier. He could imagine how it looked with forests and where a facility like that might be built. I really liked him for that. Unfortunately, he was insane at the end of his life and I practically know him only as being insane, but I really loved him.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Did you have a chance to visit the Asklepieion?
HERZOG: Yes. I went out when I was 15. I was more interested in my grandfather's generation than in my parents' generation and I followed his footsteps trying to find out what he had done and where he had done it. That is why I went to Greece and actually made my first long feature film in 1966 on the island of Kos, Signs of Life.
ARCHAEOLOGY: As you were making this film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, were you surprised at how much archaeology has changed since the days of your grandfather?
HERZOG: Yes, or since Schliemann. My grandfather was basically at the end of that generation, more or less. There were more modern methods at that time, and I think he looked at Schliemann with a suspicious eye considering the techniques they applied at the time. It's quite extraordinary what they are doing now. How they have new, almost forensic-like science to collect pollen and understand the vegetation. They do things that are unprecedented, in a way, and it's very beautiful to see that. I'm really intrigued by modern-day archaeology. For example, a square foot in one of the caves in the film—it took five months to remove half a centimeter of sediment. Every single grain of sand was picked up with a pair of pincers and documented with laser measurements. And all of a sudden it makes clear things like the flute, the flute from Hohle Fels Cave [in Germany], which is mammoth ivory, and the tiny fragments that were not understood for decades, but they were preserved. That's a fine thing, yes, until somebody came who had the kind of imagination like the young woman who is in the film, Maria Malina, an archaeological technician who had the insight and started to put the fragments together.
ARCHAEOLOGY: Yes, I think those moments of insight really draw people into archaeology.
HERZOG: Yes, of course. We do not need any other Tutankhamun's tomb with all its treasures. We need context. We need understanding. We need knowledge of historical events to tie them together. We don't know much. Of course we know a lot, but it is context that's missing, not treasures.Share