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The Spring Issue: Werner Herzog and Jan Simek on Caves

December 30, 2011 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

Werner Herzog filming Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

In the current issue of The Paris Review our Southern Editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, writes about the discovery of an elaborate prehistoric cave-art tradition in, of all places, Middle Tennessee, and about the archaeologist Jan Simek, the onetime Neanderthal expert who leads the research on these remarkable Native American sites. By a stroke of good timing, this month also marks the U.S. premiere of the German director Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a spellbinding 3-D documentary about La Grotte Chauvet, a cave in the south of France—discovered only in the mid-nineties—that contains exquisite animal paintings more than thirty thousand years old (the famous images at Lascaux go back a mere seventeen or eighteen thousand years, by comparison; Chauvet is another Lascaux back from Lascaux). In the following Q & A, Sullivan talks cave art with two of the more interesting underground explorers of our time.

JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN

Mr. Herzog, you mention in the new film that you were limited to very few days and hours of shooting in the Chauvet cave, because of the possible ill effects (mold and so forth) that too much human traffic could have on the fragile environment. Also you had very little crew, and were forced to keep the equipment light. How might the movie have been different, if you’d been given unlimited access?

WERNER HERZOG

Constraints—which in this case were massive—are never really completely productive. However, I had to focus to the very essentials, and probably, with two or three times as much schedule available for me, the film wouldn’t have been much different. It has never, in my life as a filmmaker, made much difference how the constraints were. Technical constraints, schedules, you name it—they always have forced me to be quick and intelligent.

One small thing, maybe, which keeps nagging me, is a sort of a scratched painting, the outlines of an owl. It’s very strange and mysterious, and unique, because you do not have depictions of birds in the Paleolithic caves—with one exception that comes to mind: Lascaux, where there is a bison apparently hit by spears. His entrails are coming out of his belly, and there’s a dead man on the ground, face up, and there’s a stick, and a bird on it, as if the soul of the man were departing him. A beautiful and touching image, but of course, a different cave, and something like 18,000 years later.

The problem with the owl in Chauvet is that you can only film it properly with light coming from profile. And as we could not step beyond the confinements of a metal walkway that runs through the cave, protecting the floor, it would have been very difficult to move a light. Perhaps on some sticks we could have held something, and with quite some time and tricky arrangements, I could have made it visible. But I take it as it is.

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