The Observer met Werner Herzog in a hotel suite, 28 floors high, that overlooked the Hudson River–the site of the director’s first landing in New York City just short of 50 years ago.
The legendary German filmmaker grew up in a remote mountain village in Bavaria and never saw a movie as a child–“I didn’t know that cinema existed until I was 11,” he said–but he has since gone on to make more than 50: Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Grizzly Man among them.
His latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary, takes viewers on a 3-D exploration of the Chauvet Cave, a crystal-encrusted cavern in the south of France that’s filled with exquisite wall paintings that date back to the age of the Neanderthals, as well as a sci-fi nuclear greenhouse nearby and a gem of a museum housing Paleolithic artifacts in Germany.
The Observer: Have you ever considered making a narrative film in New York?
Werner Herzog: I made a documentary film, Huie’s Sermon, in Brooklyn. I also shot some scenes for Woyzeck here. The characters actually landed by boat on one of the piers in the Hudson, as I did, coming for a visit in 1963.
How many times do you think you’ve been back since?
Fifty times, but I can’t really say. It just feels like 50 times. For the moment, my youngest son is studying social sciences and philosophy at Columbia, and that brings me here more often. I like to drop by and spontaneously take over a class. I just invade and they love it, and I bring new stuff and discuss it with them.
If I had a story, I would do a film here. It’s a prime location for shooting a film, but I’ve never really planned a career. I always yielded to the hardest-pushing project that came at me–like a burglar in the night.
What was your big break?
I wrote a screenplay, Signs of Life, and submitted it to a competition of all German-speaking screenwriters and filmmakers. There was a cash prize with it and I submitted it under a pen name because I was already known for three short films. … I won this award, which really carried me for quite a time. That was a very huge push.
Your surname was not originally Herzog, right?
It’s Stipetic. It’s Croatian. My mother’s side of the family originated from Croatia.
My parents divorced and technically my name is Stipetic. My younger brother is Stipetic. Herzog was my father’s name. As a filmmaker, I thought Herzog sounded so much better. It means Duke. Duke Ellington, Count Basie or King Vidor. Although I was never really close to my father, it sounded better.
Was it easier to make a film years ago than it is now?
No, it was probably harder because the tools of making films were expensive and inaccessible. I had to steal a camera, or rather as I call it, “appropriate” a camera. Today you can make a film with fairly high-quality digital equipment that is very inexpensive and do a feature film for under $10,000. In other words, young people who are in the culture of complaint, saying the financiers are so stupid and the studios do not listen to me, should just roll up their sleeves, earn some money and make a film.
How difficult was it to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams?
It was easy; however, every film has its obstacles. The challenge was restrictions. We could only move on a 2-foot-wide metal walkway. Never step off it, never touch it. We could only bring with us what you could carry in our hands. We had to use lights that wouldn’t emit any temperature and things like that. Shooting 3-D normally needs a larger crew, but I was only allowed three persons with me.
What was your first impression when you actually stepped into the cave?
Surprise, because the photos I had seen were all focused on the paintings. You step into the cave and there is spectacular beauty–stalagmites and stalactites and crystal cathedrals. I knew that there were some skeleton remains, mostly cave bears, but you’ve got 4,000 bones, vertebrae and skulls. It was completely astonishing. Almost all the animals you see painted on the walls are long, long, long extinct–like the woolly mammoth, woolly rhino, cave lions, megaceros and cave bears, all extinct. Deep in the cave in prehistoric times, no light from the entrance could have penetrated, when 30,000 years ago men painted where it was really dark.
Did they only paint animals?
Mostly, but there is one harshly painted lower part of a female nude. You see the pubic triangle and a bison hovering over her. It’s as if there was something of a distant echo of 30,000 years to Picasso painting the Minotaur and the female leading it. Where does it come from? It’s very, very mysterious.
What was the motivation to shoot in 3-D?
I was allowed to have a look at the cave because I wanted to see what sort of light we would need, how we could move and what the technical problems might be. It was immediately clear that it had to be in 3-D, although I’ve always been skeptical about 3-D; but it was obvious that it was imperative to do it in 3-D. Everybody who has seen it in 3-D knows it instantly.
If you had to make this film in a narrative way, who would have been the lead role and who would have been the actor to play it?
You mean, making a feature film about the discovery of the cave? That’s a good question. It has to be someone dedicated, someone intelligent. It’s not easy to establish … someone with a youthful enthusiasm. I know, James Franco.
And whom would he have played?
The discoverer of the cave: Jean-Marie Chauvet. Franco has the kind of fire and intelligence and credibility that he had.