‘Werner Herzog: the director is present,’ Hari Kunzru on filmmaking at the border of life & death in Hazlitt magazine:
Few film directors seem as directly present in their work as Werner Herzog. Not only does he have an instantly-recognizable aesthetic, but unlike most European auteurs of his generation, he has become a familiar face in front of the camera. We are so accustomed to seeing him — playing football with Peruvian indians, arguing with Klaus Kinski, eating his own shoe at Chez Panisse — that we might mistake him for just another “personality,” one of the celebrities who parade past at various scales, from cellphone to Times Square, on our screens. Directors are required to be showmen, particularly directors of documentaries, who always have to hustle to finance and screen their work. But Herzog’s presence, his insistence on being in the middle of things, is something more like an artistic strategy — which is to say it’s the very opposite of a strategy, unless it’s possible to be both strategic and uncalculated, canny and impulsive at the same time.
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his 2010 documentary, Herzog can hardly help appearing on screen. The Chauvet cave, sealed off for twenty thousand years in a limestone cliff above the river Ardèche in the south of France, was rediscovered in 1994. It was found to contain hundreds of paleolithic paintings of horses, mammoths, cave bears, bison, lions, and other animals, which may be over thirty thousand years old, almost twice the age of previous finds. The caves are being studied by a team of scientists and access is extremely restricted. Herzog and his crew had to shoot the whole film from a two-foot wide metal walkway running along the cave’s floor, using hand-held lights and a stripped-down camera. They frequently appear in shot, having nowhere to hide. In voice-over, Herzog speculates about the origins of art, about being “locked in history,” and the impossibility of bridging the distance that separates his image-making from that of the painters, working in charcoal and red ochre on the cave walls. Hearing his familiar voice musing about these familiarly Herzogian themes has become weirdly comforting. It’s hard to remember how confrontational and strange his essayistic personal style seemed when audiences first encountered it.
First posted: Sunday, August 26th, 2012.