Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog in 3-D

Werner Herzog may have made his latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in 3-D, but the chameleonic German auteur is hardly hopping on the bandwagon of Hollywood's techno-gimmick du jour.

"I'm not a full advocate of 3-D filmmaking," Herzog told the Weekly, in a hotel suite the afternoon following Cave's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, "because our eyes and our brain are selective. In a way, [3-D] limits us. I believe we will not see a romantic comedy done in 3-D. We want to experience in our hearts: 'Are they going to find each other, the young lovers, or will they be separated forever?' Our inner amplitude of complimenting the story is too constricted in 3-D. For certain types of films, it will be really not productive."

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is no romantic comedy. The first filmmaker to be allowed access to the Chauvet Cave in France since its discovery in 1994, Herzog determined that the Chauvet's internal markings — the oldest known cave paintings, estimated to date back roughly 32,000 years — demanded three-dimensional treatment.

"There's a wild configuration of bulges and niches and rock pendants," Herzog said. "Because the artists 32,000 years ago utilized the drama of the third dimension, a bulge of the rock is now a neck of a bison coming at you. Since we were the only ones possibly ever allowed to film in there, we had to bring something back that really depicted as it was meant to look like. And the look is 3-D."

Herzog's four-man crew was allowed into the cave for six four-hour shooting days, and was confined to narrow walkways lit only by small battery-powered lights (standard film lights emit heat that could damage the paintings). The tiny 3-D camera had to be rebuilt between shots to accommodate different lenses, because the men couldn't physically move the camera much within the cave. The resulting effect is wonderfully intimate: Rather than causing the paintings to pop forward in front of it, the 3-D enhances perception deep into the frame. The low lighting even accentuates the experience, mimicking the conditions in which the paintings were initially made and seen, and drawing out what Herzog sees as their latent cinematic potential.

"There is a sense of movement and a sense of drama on the walls," Herzog said. "When you see a bison depicted with eight legs, and when you imagine the painters at that time with moving torchlight, it hints at some sort of movement. It is almost like proto-cinema."

In his inimitable narration, Herzog draws a line from the Chauvet paintings straight to Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadow, and then introduces a species of albino crocodiles that mutated in radioactive waters near Chauvet — artifacts of our times just as the creatures depicted on the walls of Chauvet offer an enigmatic representation of their own era.

Cave caps a highly prolific five-year stretch for Herzog, encompassing the 2005 hit Grizzly Man, his first and only Oscar nomination (for the Antarctica documentary Encounters at the End of the World) and stabs at narrative filmmaking both Hollywood star–driven (Rescue Dawn, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) and experimental (My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, produced by AFI Fest guest director David Lynch).

But if Herzog's mythic status has swelled over the past half-decade, his cinematic output is only partially responsible: His increased popular notoriety owes just as much to two events that happened in a single week in January 2006. First, Herzog came across an overturned car on a road near his home in the Hollywood Hills and found actor Joaquin Phoenix disoriented in the driver's seat. Herzog smashed a back window and helped Phoenix out of the wreckage. "He didn't notice that gasoline was dripping all around him," Herzog remembered. "So first of all, I took [away] his cigarette."

The incident dominated the gossip media for a news cycle, and suddenly, outlets like US Weekly, oblivious to Herzog's actual films, were branding him a hero. Days later, Herzog was in the same canyon taping an interview with the BBC's Mark Kermode when he was struck by a bullet from an air rifle. Herzog declined to track down the shooter, telling Kermode in a clip that became a sensation on YouTube, "It's not a significant bullet."

Herzog said such random occurrences are what attracts him to his adopted hometown. "It's the folklore of living in Los Angeles. You have to look beyond the kitsch and glamour of Hollywood. I have taken a clear, good look at Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the city with the most substance in the United States. I'm only proclaiming the banalities of tomorrow, and in 20 years everybody will speak about it. Everyone."

Cave of Forgotten Dreams screens at 7 p.m. Wed., Nov. 10, at Mann's Chinese Theater.

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