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Do They Dream? Spelunking With Werner Herzog | The Nation

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Do They Dream? Spelunking With Werner Herzog

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Hyperbole fails. “A movie 30,000 years in the making! Goes where no film has gone before—or will ever go again! Mysteries and wonders leap off the screen! In a lifetime of moviegoing, you will never see another film like this!” Such ravings become mere statements of fact with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary that demotes cries of “Awesome!” to the status of mere reportage. The proposition, quite literally, is this: you can pay your money, strap on your 3-D glasses (yes, 3-D) and witness what Herzog alone has been entrusted to show you, or else forgo seeing the most primal and profound evidence yet encountered of what makes us human.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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That evidence lies buried in the cliffs overlooking the Ardèche River in southern France, where in 1994 a trio of spelunkers pushed their way through a crevice in the rock face and found the oldest known cave paintings in the world. The walls of the site, now named Chauvet Cave in honor of one of its discoverers, are covered with hundreds of images of animals, which most archaeologists believe to be approximately 30,000 years old. There is some debate; but no one doubts that the paintings are almost pristine, the mouth of the cave having been sealed by a rockfall ages ago. To make sure that the condition of the paintings remains stable, the entrance has been resealed, this time by a steel bank-vault door. Small research teams and their highly select guests enter the cave for only six weeks during the year, breaking up their time to avoid letting too much body heat and moisture build up. No other people are permitted beyond the steel door—except for Herzog and a skeleton crew, who received permission from the French Ministry of Culture to film in Chauvet Cave in the spring of 2010.

Some details of Herzog’s experience during the shoot are unavoidably worked into Cave of Forgotten Dreams, since passages through Chauvet Cave are cramped, and everyone must remain on a narrow steel walkway that the researchers have laid down. The crew members, with their battery belts and flat lights, could not help getting into the shots. This was only fitting; people who come to Chauvet Cave to explore someone else’s form of image-making do well to acknowledge their own. But Herzog also incorporates voluntary self-revelations. He chooses to narrate the film in voiceover and to make his presence felt during interviews. And the presence, as should be obvious from decades of his cinema, is far from bland. Speaking with an archaeologist about the difficulty of understanding the cave painters from the marks they left behind, Herzog likens the attempt to someone’s trying in the future to imagine the lives of New Yorkers based solely on a discovered list of their names. “Do they dream? Do they cry at night? We would never know from the phone directory.”

Never mind that the paintings are far from being piled up in a matter-of-fact list. They were made to glide and veer, warp and scurry by firelight across the surfaces of their chambers, where thousands of years of calcite deposits glisten like pearl. Herzog knows perfectly well that the spectacle is stunning, and he’s prepared to keep his implicit bargain by giving you plenty of it. (That’s why he complicated an already challenging shoot by filming in 3-D, so you could see the paintings in their plasticity, as they curve with the walls. Given the chance, I suspect, Herzog would have added Smell-o-Vision.) But he is not content merely to record these traces, however beautiful, of a vastly distant, all but unimaginable communal life. He is also determined to confront that unfathomable collective experience with what we know in the present—the idiosyncratic, the concrete, the individual—as if trying to look through both ends of a telescope at the same time.

You sense Herzog’s delight when one of the younger scientists he interviews—bearded, ponytailed and draped in a stylish scarf—turns out to have come to archaeology from a career in the circus, where he rode unicycles and juggled. A kindred spirit! The scientist recalls having needed to get away for a while after his first days of working in the cave, so overpowering were the paintings, but then feeling reassured and happy when the images of the Chauvet lions invaded his dreams. Then there’s the experimental archaeologist who plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his reconstruction of a Paleolithic flute; the researcher who gamely trots back and forth in a field for Herzog, demonstrating the spear-throwing technique of prehistoric hunters (who must have been much, much better at it, he admits); the master perfumer who is sniffing his way through the Ardèche region, collaborating on a project to reproduce the scent of the caves. The personalities of the principal scientists are so important to Herzog that at one point he stops the film to record a gallery of them in close-up, deep underground, while everyone silently listens for “the heartbeat of the cave.”

Herzog’s personality is necessarily a part of this confrontation across the ages, and a part of the texture of the film. Only minutes into the movie, he and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger are already asserting themselves, flying the camera up the wall of a cliff for a dizzying, seemingly impossible view of the landscape. From there, the signature gestures multiply. At one point the camera flips upside down to accompany a description of a rockslide. At another, the crew walks out the far end of a long, broad chamber, taking their lights with them, so that the cameraman is left alone in the dark, and you are left imagining the intense isolation of the cave. So it goes until the coda, when Herzog puts you eye-to-eye with an albino crocodile in an artificial jungle, for reasons that could be explained in a review but probably shouldn’t be. Let’s just say it has to do with the challenge of understanding the cave painters, and is something only Herzog would have thought up.

Is this arrogance on his part? No—humility, the point being that none of us, Herzog included, could have thought up Chauvet Cave or really know what to make of it. And so for long periods in Cave of Forgotten Dreams the narration drops out and the cinematic personality approaches zero while Herzog leaves you alone with the paintings, accompanied only by the wordless chanting of Ernst Reijseger’s musical score. You see the lines that delicately mark out the nodding, lifting profiles of horses, four of them superimposed in a herd, with their jaws lightly parted as if panting. You see row after upraised row of rhinoceros horns, curving like multiple crescent moons; the snuffling, speckled muzzles of lions; a bison scrambling along on eight scrawny, busy legs. There are also scratch marks on the walls, looking like the work of bear claws; heaps of glistening, pearly animal skeletons scattered everywhere on the chamber floors (though no human remains); and on several walls the outlines of hands, including one that can be singled out, over and over, because of a missing digit. Traces of an individual presence, at a distance of 30,000 years.

Awe without sanctimony, uncanniness without mystification, a respect for the profound difference of other people, and other orders of beings, without any pretense of abandoning one’s self: these have always been characteristics of Herzog’s best work. These traits reach their height in Cave of Forgotten Dreams as he comes as close as we’re likely to get to the unapproachable—our own beginnings. Because Chauvet Cave must be protected, he had just one chance to bring out of it a filmed experience, not only for himself but perhaps for all filmmakers. The greatest praise you can give him is to say he didn’t blow it.

* * *

André Bazin’s great lesson about cinema remains true today, even amid the whole world’s digitization: there’s nothing like the real thing. Witness the excitement stirred up by Joe Wright’s spy thriller Hanna, which has been getting to people almost despite its displays of cleverness.

Subtract from Hanna its elbow-jabbing references to the Brothers Grimm, its breathless tour of color-manipulated locales, its camera placements that hit you like a pie in the face, its rapid editing that every bright sixth grader can now achieve on a computer, and you’ve still got the real thing in the flesh of young Saoirse Ronan, for whom the phrase “pretty strange” might have been invented. Her considerable strength as an actress is not the issue here. What matters is the eerily translucent skin, the Cycladic modeling of her features and above all the noonday-blue eyes, which become the primary special effect of any movie she’s in. During her brief career, Ronan has proved to be an irresistible object of erotic fascination and sexual anxiety for the camera—in Atonement, The Lovely Bones and now Hanna, which hinges perversely (and knowingly) on the question of what it might mean that this particular little girl is all grown up. Ronan gives Hanna the sense of physical presence that is still critical to the movies; and Wright makes his contribution to that sense when he directs his best action sequence. Dispensing for once with stunt doubles and quick cuts, he sends his male lead (Eric Bana) through an extended Bazinian tracking shot, which convinces you that a real man is moving through real, dangerous places.

But enough about Hanna. This has all been a pretext to discuss Andreas Lust’s remarkable performance in Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber. That’s the film where you see the actor, closely tracked by a camera car, run up a mountain road for hundreds of yards in a single take. Some things you can’t fake, and they make all the difference.

The reality effect is especially important to The Robber because the film is based on a novel (by Martin Prinz) that is based in turn on actual events. In the 1980s, Austria was riveted by a series of solo bank robberies perpetrated by a man wearing a rubbery Ronald Reagan mask. He turned out to be Johann Kastenberger, a convict who had become famous as a long-distance runner.

The film makes no attempt to explain this double life. It provides no backstory for its protagonist, no speeches in which he reveals his feelings (he scarcely speaks) and no political or sociological motivation, other than a passing radio news report about the criminal habits of UBS financial services. (The action has been updated to the present.) All you know about this character is what you see in Lust: a long-faced, unsmiling man with no body fat and a mean glare. He runs, he robs; sometimes he combines the two.

This turns out to be enough for a good movie, as Heisenberg inadvertently proves when he adds a little more. Violating his own conception of the film, he tosses in a love interest, which just slows down the protagonist, who might have a physical need for sex (in the same way he needs wind sprints) but has no interest in love. The Robber is truly itself when it simply cranks up the soundtrack and chases after him. That’s when you feel why he lives as he does: because it’s exciting; because he can.

* * *

Daniel and Diego Vega’s Octubre recently had the distinction of playing in the New Directors/New Films festival in New York and is now going into limited theatrical release. It’s a small, droll, anecdotal film, which probably should not be overpraised. But if you approach it as if sampling a distinctive regional dish, you will find that it has an unexpectedly haunting aftertaste.

The setting is Lima. The month: October, when the evening streets are crowded with processions honoring the city’s icon, the Lord of Miracles. During these special days, a middle-aged loan shark (Bruno Odar), strictly small-time and not nearly intimidating enough, becomes the unwilling recipient of a baby girl, dropped off at his little house by one of the prostitutes who are his only company. Then he unexpectedly makes a second human connection, when a client (Gabriela Velásquez)—one of the penitents in the nightly processions—realizes he hasn’t a clue how to care for a baby and so moves in with him. The result isn’t redemption but something more plausible and melancholy, and well worth savoring.

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