From the Amazon to Antarctica, the intrepid Werner Herzog has more than staked his claim on the cinematic (and geographic) map. His filmography is stacked with enthralling nature (Encounters at the End of the World), fascinating characters (Grizzly Man) and plenty of on (and off) screen drama (Aguirre: The Wrath of God). The latest documentary is no different, with Herzog heading underground and embracing 3D to share the astounding discovery of pristine, 30,000-year-old cave paintings in the south of France. The resulting Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a breathtaking document, steeped in ‘Herzogian’ subjectivity, with the filmmaker’s iconic tones carefully detailing the technical difficulties he faced, as well as musing on the potential spiritual meaning behind the spectacular Palaeolithic artworks.
According to Herzog’s cinematographer of 16 years, Peter Zeitlinger, keeping up with the indefatigable German director requires a particular cocktail of brain and brawn.
“Werner’s said that I’m a very great cameraman because I used to be an ice hockey player,” enthuses Zeitlinger over the phone from Italy. “That was the reason that he originally hired me, because he needed a person who is physically in a condition to withstand his demands of film working!”
These demands include an aversion for ‘big tools’ and preference for handheld camerawork, two things that held Zeitlinger in very good stead as he and Herzog faced the limitations of time and access to France’s Chauvet Caves. A cramped entrance, two-foot wide walkway and the perilous delicacy of the surrounds certainly made Zeitlinger think on his feet.
“We had to improvise a lot. [We used] equipment that we assembled with gaffa tape and hard wire,” he says, laughing. “We didn’t have the opportunity to see the cave in advance, so we found out [about the restrictions] on the day when we wanted to start to shoot.”
“[But] we had to shoot it no matter what, so we did. We had to find a local blacksmith and he produced some iron parts for us to be able to put the cameras together.”
Adding to the technical headaches was the fact that Zeitlinger was shooting in 3D, but according to the cinematographer, there was no other option.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a case where 3D was very important because of the shape of the cave and because of the shape of the paintings. The shape of the work is a part of the artistic expression of these great artists from 30,000 years ago, which we couldn’t have covered better in any other way than in 3D. [Otherwise] it would be lost; it would be just a flat painting. Whereas they actually used the shape of the rocks to express their vision.”
Zeitlinger was clearly affected by his time in the cave, “30,000 years, no-one can imagine that, and [yet] I felt so familiar with those people who were there. I got a kind of universal touch to mankind.”
As for his time with Herzog, Zeitlinger seems set to follow in the filmmaker’s adventurous footsteps. “It’s like if somebody asked me, ‘Where can you ski? How deep can the slope be?’ and I say, ‘Every where [there’s] snow!’ That’s [the same] with filming; wherever you can go as a human being, you can also film.”
Street Press Australia (p.57)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams will screen at the Sydney Film Festival on Saturday 18th June at 10am.
Click HERE to listen to my Spoiler Special with Dana Stevens.
Australian release date: 22 September 2011