When I was first getting into movies in the late 70s and early 80s (readers may have noticed that’s my favourite way of kicking off an article), Werner Herzog was a unique, vital figure, generating endless stories of personal eccentricity and foolhardiness, yet working too efficiently and sensitively merely to be categorized as a flake. Writing in 1980, David Thomson called him “exceptional” and “epically adventurous,” and I don’t think many would have disputed the assessment. Prophetically though, Thomson noted this: “as attention has fallen on Herzog, so his pursuit of extremism has become a little more studied; it does now seem more zealous than natural.” Soon after that, Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, a chronicle of a visionary who dreams of building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle; it’s most famous for the scene of a steamer being tugged over a mountain, which the director insisted on carrying out for real. The film received attention galore, but Herzog seemed to leave something in the jungle. He kept making pictures all over the world, but increasingly, no one cared.
Writing more recently, Thomson noted, “Going too often to extremes can turn the remoteness into a habit.” But at some point, Herzog acquired a new kind of stature, partly no doubt through longevity (he’ll be seventy next year), relentlessness and uncategorizable charisma. Writing in The Grid, Jason Anderson noted he’s become more famous than his films and warned that “trafficking in Herzog anecdotes or perfecting your impression of his accent is no substitute for making time to engage with the works themselves” (I must confess I was entirely unaware that anyone might have fallen into this, uh, trap). The works themselves have certainly become more accessible lately: Herzog even made a mainstream release, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which overall seemed to me more interesting in theory than actuality.
If the final accounting on Herzog’s career ends up somewhere near Thomson’s initial assessment, it’ll probably be because of his ongoing work as a documentarian. Herzog has always disdained the notion of tidy, notionally objective reportage, contrasting his concept of “ecstatic truth” with the presumably lamer “accountants’ truth.” Recent works like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the Edge of the World do indeed convey a kind of ecstasy; it’s not just that Herzog takes his subject and surveys them from all angles – he also looks at them upside down, and with his eyes closed, and from the moon. The result usually has a suitably cosmic feeling about it, perhaps because Herzog has actually illuminated something that others would miss, perhaps because he’s corralled the subject matter into a more stimulating kind of fiction (ironically, some would say accountants do that all the time).
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
His latest documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, focuses on a subject you might say embodies a form of ecstatic truth, but that contrary to Herzog’s usual inclinations, demands a certain degree of accountants’ truth in the telling. It explores the Chauvet cave in southern France, the site of the earliest-known cave paintings, discovered only in 1994. Access to the cave is tightly controlled – it’s not open to casual visitors, and even the scientists involved in its ongoing investigation work under severe constraints; Herzog was allowed only a minimal crew and limited hours of access. Given the uniqueness of the opportunity, he decided to make the film using 3-D technology, which works very well throughout. If the film were nothing else then, it would be an important historical record, bringing us as close to the experience of the site itself as we can ever hope for (absent, that is the smell; the movie claims even this may be addressed by a future theme park which would set out to replicate the totality of the physical experience).
As much as a site of forgotten dreams, the cave is a site of lost stories. The paintings remain remarkably vivid – it’s easy to see why they’ve been suspected at times to be fakes – and even sophisticated, subtly suggesting form and contour; using such devices (which I certainly thought arose from later conventions) of using multiple legs to denote running – Herzog calls this a form of “proto-cinema.” At first glance, one might assume the paintings all reflect a common project, but carbon dating shows that a drawing juxtaposed against another might actually have been added five thousand years later. They depict an ecosystem that now seems like the stuff of fantasy – lions and rhinoceroses and mammoths. Some of the markings are hand prints, with a particular individual identifiable from one cave to another by virtue of his crooked little finger. Others seem to depict early slivers of mythology; for instance, one painting may represent a minotaur-type figure.
Gazing into the Abyss
The cave then is stunning as a present artifact, as pure art object, while also cradling the richest of mysteries about the past, perhaps the greatest unsolved and unsolvable detective story in the world (other than the one about the meaning of life). It feels as if Herzog, moved or maybe even overwhelmed by his subject, was wary of cheapening it; of all his documentaries, it’s the one you can most imagine turning out substantially the same in the hands of someone else. The main difference – the thing that no one else would have done! – comes at the very end, in an epilogue that moves to an artificial tropical sanctuary, drawing on the heat generated at a nearby nuclear plant, and home to dozens of thriving crocodiles, including a pair of albinos. Many writers have been scratching their heads over Herzog’s intentions here, and certainly I can’t lay claim to any definitive analysis. My guess would be though that he wants to reorient us, to counter the danger that we might merely walk out cooing over the pretty pictures; to remind us that the longest-established recesses of life on earth continue to intertwine with technology and modern chaos, perhaps generating mysterious new consequences and potential meanings, or perhaps restoring to us our forgotten dreams. It’s weird, but rather beautifully so.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Herzog’s next film is to be called Gazing into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life. The movie focuses on several inmates condemned to death in a Texas prison, but it’s only a slight stretch to see how its title might have been applied to Cave of Forgotten Dreams as well. Anything to do with death row is by definition an extreme application of the human condition, but perhaps through that very fact, capable of illuminating something universal and sustaining. Perhaps Herzog will see the inmates as paintings, perhaps as albino alligators. It’s impossible to anticipate, and that’s why Herzog remains such a stimulating filmmaker; whether or not you think the films are objective successes, or whether you think they’re “weird,” they leave your world a little fuller than it was before, and usually at least a little more ecstatic.