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I’ve been meaning to write about Werner Herzog for a few months. After a period of oppressive academic commitments, I was lucky enough to get away on Wednesday night to hear the director speak in Cadogan Hall in London. The event, entitled Filming the Abyss, was run by Intelligence² and put Herzog in conversation with Paul Holdengräber (the director of LIVE from the New York Public Library). As well as wide-ranging discussion, we were provided with short clips from his then unreleased new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), as well as a picture that he is in the process of editing, which involves a series of interviews with members of the Texas 7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams opened on Friday and I saw the film on Sunday afternoon.

It’s perhaps the first film I’ve seen which uses 3d technology in a sophisticated way, justifying its appearance as a crucial element of the storytelling, rather than a hollow gimmick. The documentary tells us about the Chauvet caves in the south of France and the rock paintings contained therein (the oldest yet discovered). The horses, lions and other animals depicted all rely on the dimensions and contours of the rock for their elegance and a 3d presentation more fully recreates the total effect of the experience. In Herzog’s own words, the decision to shoot in 3d attempts to ‘capture the intentions of the painters’. As a technical exercise alone, it’s very impressive. The crew, limited to four men, was allowed only six four-hour shooting days; they used a 3d camera built especially for the project, which had to be assembled in the cave itself; they had to stay on a two foot wide walkway for the duration of their time.

And, after all this hard work, it is the caves and the paintings and the artists that are the stars. Most of the interviews and most of the narration is quite quickly forgotten (though there are a few crazy characters and a few striking phrases). The stalactites and stalagmites stunningly shimmer as Herzog (who’s operating the battery-powered handheld light) shines the beam onto the sculptures. Footprints, both animal and human, rest frozen, well preserved in the floor. A far-off wall (far away from the walkway) is spotted with red handprints. Charcoal-black horses seem to gallop across the rock, looming towards the viewer, while never losing their figures or becoming a series of lines. One of the most stunning creations is the form of a large male lion in profile, achieved simply with a single unbroken line.

These details hint at stories which are now impossible to uncover fully. A scientist points out two footprints that rest together. They were made by a wolf and a small child. We’re left to wonder how this formation came about: as Herzog muses, the animal may have been stalking its prey, though it could instead have been prowling beside the kid in friendship. It could also be the case that two moments separated by thousands of years have been juxtaposed together in calcite crystals. The red handprints, we are told, are all from one man: we can tell because he has a crooked little finger. Not only does this signature allow us to follow his path through the cave, as his handprint appears in other areas, but it also invites us to wonder what went on outside the cave that resulted in a broken bone.

If Herzog has a tell-tale little finger – a filmic signature – it may be an explicit suggestion that he knows when not to show us something. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his hand is somewhat forced by the limits of the walkway. There is a certain rock formation upon which is drawn the lower half of a woman fused with the upper half of an animal. But unfortunately the floor is too delicate and he must stay quite far back, showing us only one side of the three-dimensional structure. He attempts, with the aid of a camera on a stick, to reveal the other half, though this technique is only partly successful: some of the work remains hidden. In The White Diamond (2004), he soars above the forest canopies of Guyana but when the camera reaches the cave behind the overwhelming Kaieteur Falls, a space where the white-tipped swifts nest and local spirits rest, he refuses to show us the resulting footage (captured using similarly ingenious means, if my memory’s correct). When faced with the gruesome, he decides it’s better to turn away: in Grizzly Man (2005), he doesn’t play the audio recording of Timothy Treadwell getting eaten (and actually recommends destroying the tape entirely). In Cadogan Hall, he suggested that he knows what not to show, when it comes to his presentation of the Texas 7 on death row. He believes some of the details of the crimes are too revolting to bear repeating.

On a (slightly) lighter note, Herzog left the audience in London some homework. We were to watch a short by Ramin Bahrani called Plastic Bag (2009). Herzog provides the voice for the bag as it makes an epic journey to reach the Pacific Vortex. It’s elegant and entertaining and I think I’ll end with that.