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Werner Herzog on Paleolithic Cave Art, Leaving San Francisco, and 'The Simpsons'

Werner Herzog (right) directs and stars in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, now playing at the Century San Francisco Centre 9 and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

If Werner Herzog weren’t celebrated enough for his movies, including the 1982 epic Fitzcarraldo and the 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, he would still be the star of his improbable personal history.
 
He has eaten his shoe on camera, saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck, and taken a bullet from a Los Angeles sniper during a televised interview – though, as the director quickly assured the stunned interviewer, it was “not a significant bullet.” Perhaps less remarkably, the man heralded as a pioneer of the New German Cinema admits he enjoys Baywatch, and likens WrestleMania to ancient Greek drama.
 
There are no scantily clad lifeguards or steroid-enhanced he-men in Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which finds the marvelously eclectic auteur fulfilling a lifelong ambition to explore the wonder of Paleolithic underground art. For the occasion, he gained unprecedented access to the Chauvet cave in southern France, discovered in 1994 and said to contain drawings dating back 32,000 years.


 
Herzog describes such drawings as the catalyst for his intellectual and spiritual awakening, at age 12. “I spotted a book in the window of a bookstore with a picture of a horse from the Lascaux cave on it, and an indescribable excitement took hold of me. I wanted this book. I had to have it.”
 
With only a dollar-a-month allowance, the German-born Herzog, now 68, took a job as a tennis-court ball boy and borrowed what he could from his brothers. It took him more than half a year to save the necessary money, but Herzog approached the challenge with characteristic doggedness.
 
“At least once a week I would check, my heart pounding, if the book was still there. Apparently, I believed this was the only one,” he adds, fondly recalling his “shudder of awe and wonder” when the book was finally his.
 
Herzog doesn’t claim to know the purpose of the drawings, of men, women, children and animals, though he describes their crude power in hushed tones, as if experiencing it again for the first time.



“It was complete awe, followed by speechlessness,” Herzog says of his initial response to the caves. (He regained his senses enough to narrate his subterranean journey, which he captured in breathtaking 3-D.) “I had the feeling that we were disturbing someone, a sensation shared by the original discoverers. It’s all so fresh – the paintings may be 32,000 years old, but it’s as if they were left behind an hour ago.

“It feels as though you are being watched by ancient spirits, eyes peering at you from the darkness. It is, in fact, quite creepy.”

No conversation with Herzog would be complete without at least one startling if unrelated revelation, and on this day he does not disappoint. Asked to explain his conspicuous absence from this year’s San Francisco Film Festival, where Cave was a featured selection, the director says he’s already hard at work on his next three films, the first of which will be a documentary about life on death row.

He also notes that he and his wife lived in the City by the Bay for many years, but that he moved to L.A. because he needed to live “in the city with the most substance in the United States.” Say what?



“You have to look beyond the glitz and the glamour, the banality of Hollywood,” he says, firmly but politely explaining that L.A. remains America’s foremost source of “cultural substance” almost in spite of itself. “I have only been to two parties in 10 years, and two red-carpet events in 13 years. Nobody knows I live here. But if you want to get into financing, you move to New York. If you want to be in the oil business, you live in Houston. I am a filmmaker. I live in L.A.”

Despite walking among the Hollywood elite for more than a decade – Herzog claims he lives in L.A. almost entirely undetected, but Phoenix, at least, would probably dispute that – he remains curiously (or is that defiantly?) ignorant of certain pop-culture cornerstones.
 
“I must confess that I did not know The Simpsons was an animated show,” he says of the series on which he made a cameo in March. “I thought it was a comic strip, like Charlie Brown. When they approached me, I said, ‘What do you mean by speaking a guest part? Do they speak?’ They thought I was pulling their legs. I was not.”

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is now playing at the Century San Francisco Centre 9 and the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. For tickets and showtimes, click here.