German lunatic auteur Werner Herzog couldn’t make a straight film if he tried. His truth is much stranger than fiction, skewed horribly by his all-encompassing ego and the madness that coarses through his veins.
Yet he makes great films and has done so since the late 60’s, modern masterpieces like Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo, where he physically dragged a three story riverboat from one river system over a hill into another, deep in the Amazon jungle. People died on his sets, it was crazy. In fact the making of Fitzcaraldo is a film itself, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (Shock), documents Herzog’s obsession in the wake of attack from hostile Indians, plane crashed and torrential rain. Herzog interviewed in the jungle is pure feverish ramblings of a man on the edge of sanity, offering the most amazing turn of phrase you will ever hear. “Even the stars are a mess he offered,” before admitting there was a kind of harmony in the jungle, “but it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
Whilst his fictional films, particularly something like 1982’s Fitzcaraldo possessed a gritty kind of realism, he’s tempered his fictional work with numerous documentaries like the strange and at times harrowing Grizzly Man, and Little Dieter Needs to Fly (that he later fictionalised as Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale). Recently his fictional work, the aforementioned Rescue Dawn and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans have lacked the danger and vitality of his 70’s oeuvre, and though his crew are no doubt happy, it seemed like his best work was behind him. 2009’s My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done collaboration with David Lynch, signalled something of a return to form, though these days he’s at his most edgy and peculiar in his documentaries.
What’s interesting is that he’s not attempting to sell the audience that he’s offering some kind of objective truth, rather his ego often has him front and centre in the midst of the action.
The incredible Chauvet Cave in France, which had been sealed off for over 20,000 years was discovered in 1994. Due to a rockslide, everything inside was preserved untouched, pristine rock paintings, fossilized skulls of extinct cave bears, even footprints of prehistoric man. Only a select few scientists have been allowed entry, but for some unknown reason when they were looking for a documentarian they chose Herzog.
The Cave Of Forgotten Dream (Reel) is remarkably poignant, Herzog narrating poetic musings on the lives and circumstances of the artists alongside interviews with the scientists. He’s fascinated by the process of filming it, wearing the limitations on his sleeve and allowing the viewer to experience the remarkable artworks as he does, using light and capturing the contours of the cave perfectly. He tangents of course, capturing a master perfumer roaming the countryside outside the cave, searching for more caverns with his heightened sense of smell, and later manages to link albino crocodiles basking in water heated by a nuclear reactor 20 miles away, but that’s what we love about Herzog, emotional poignancy with a splash of tangential ego.