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Herzog Enters 'The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.'

German filmmaker Werner Herzog was one of the few people permitted to enter a cave in France containing the oldest recorded cave paintings. What he saw — and what he imagined — is the subject of a new documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

39:00

Other segments from the episode on April 20, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 20, 2011: Interview with Werner Herzog; Review of documentary film "Nostalgia for the Light"; Review of Tim Berne's album "Insomnia."

Transcript

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Herzog Enters 'The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Werner Herzog, directed the new film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." It's
a 3-D documentary about the Chauvet Cave in France that has cave paintings
which are 30,000 years old, the oldest ones that scientists know of. The cave
had been sealed off by fallen rock for over 20,000 years before French
scientists discovered it in 1994.

The climate and ecology in the cave are so delicate that visitors aren't
allowed in. So it wasn't easy for Herzog to get permission to bring cameras and
a small crew into the cave. As we'll hear, he had to follow strict rules.

The results are remarkable, enabling us to see, in 3-D, a glimpse of our pre-
history, Paleolithic art, cave bear claw scratches, animal bones and incredibly
beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.

Werner Herzog's other films include "Aguirre: The Wrath of God,"
"Fitzcorraldo," "Nosferatu" and "Grizzly Man." Those films are about men - and
one vampire - who go to extremes. And Herzog is known as a filmmaker willing to
endure extreme conditions to make his movies.

Werner Herzog, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you to
describe some of the cave paintings that you find most extraordinary.

Mr. WERNER HERZOG (Director, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams"): Well, the whole
ensemble of the cave and all the paintings is awesome. So it's very hard to
single out one specific part of it. But for me, the most intense of all is the
so-called "Panel of Lions."

You see lions - five, six, seven of them - stalking something, their eyes with
incredible intensity pointed, all exactly pointed at one object. And you don't
know what they are stalking. So it's really very, very beautiful, very intense,
very accomplished.

GROSS: I was amazed at how some of the images were shaded in, and there was a
certain amount of depth implied in how they were shaded. I was expecting, when
I walked into your film, to see amazing line drawings and stick figures, you
know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it's so much more sophisticated than that.

Mr. HERZOG: Well, I think art, as it bursts on the scene 32,000 years ago, is
fully accomplished. It doesn't start with - I say it in quotes - "primitive
scribblings" and first attempts like children would make drawings. No. It's
absolutely and fully accomplished, and not in Roman and Greek antiquity or in
Renaissance or in modern times, painting has gotten any better.

GROSS: Now, the Chauvet Cave where you filmed wasn't discovered until 1994.
Tell us some of the things that the keepers of the cave have been doing to keep
it as untouched, as pristine as possible.

Mr. HERZOG: When they discovered the cave, they did everything right to
preserve it. They immediately understood the importance of the cave. They would
only very carefully move along the floor by spreading out sheets of plastic and
step on it, because you could immediately see that there were fairly fresh
tracks of cave bears.

The cave bear actually went extinct 20,000-or-so years ago, but there are still
fresh tracks of them. And, of course, later, when scientists moved in, they did
it with utmost caution, never touching anything. A metal walkway was built, and
you never leave this walkway.

All these precautions were necessary also for preserving the cave in a way that
not too many people entering would leave with their breath, some mold on the
walls, which happened in the most famous other cave, Lascaux in the Dordogne
area of France: too many tourists, too many visitors with their exhalations,
with their breath created a mold on the wall that is now very hard to control,
and the cave is categorically shut down now. Same thing with Altamira in the
Pyrenees in Spain.

GROSS: Well, before I ask you how you got into this cave and got permission to
make a film about it, why did you want to make a film about the Chauvet Cave?

Mr. HERZOG: Since early adolescence, I have been fascinated by cave paintings.
It actually was my personal awakening, independent awakening, intellectual
awakening by seeing a book in a book store in the display. And it really shook
me to the core, seeing an image of a horse, and it said prehistoric and Stone
Age paintings, and I couldn't believe it.

And I would pass by the window each week and try to earn money as a ball-boy in
tennis courts, and I hoped that nobody would buy the book. Apparently, I
thought it was the only one. And finally, I bought it in the kind of shudder of
awe. Seeing these paintings are still in me, somehow.

GROSS: And as your interest in the paintings themselves are also in the
knowledge that there was, like, tens of thousands of years ago, there was an
instinct to make art, there was an instinct to represent the world.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. It is strange and very significant that, all of a sudden, we
have the presence of what I would call the modern human soul. We should be
careful to define what soul means, but all modernities, all of a sudden,
bursting on the scene. Neanderthal man actually did not have all of this, and
other civilizations did not have it. Earlier human beings did not represent the
world in figurative means: paintings, sculptures and so on.

GROSS: So this happens with Paleolithic man.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, it does.

GROSS: And it's Paleolithic man who did the cave paintings at Chauvet?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. I mean, more precisely, Aurignacian. It's a particular phase
of earlier Paleolithic time.

GROSS: So once you decided you wanted to make this film about the Chauvet Cave,
how did you get permission to go inside with a film crew and shoot it,
considering how hard they've been working at the caves to keep people out of it
so that the cave can be maintained?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, of course. It was the biggest of all battles. And we took our
time. I had to approach the Ministry of Culture, but there's also the regional
government which has to give its okay. And, of course, the scientists, the
Council of the Scientists, have to see you and give their okay.

And I was very lucky that the French minister of culture, Frederic Mitterrand -
he's a nephew of the former president. Frederic Mitterrand turned out to be a
great fan of my films. And in this respect, I already had some slight
advantage.

But the French can be very territorial when it comes to their own patrimoine,
their patrimony, their legacy in art and culture. And, of course, me, as a
Bavarian filmmaker, why am I going to do this and not a French one?

So I think it was clear that I was kind of competent as a filmmaker, and
probably the fervor, the fire inside of me concerning cave art, these
paintings, was a convincing item. And otherwise, beyond giving everything that
was in me into these discourses, beyond all this, I think I was just very, very
lucky.

GROSS: Well, what about the regional government and the scientists? Did they
know your movies, and were they open to the idea of you doing the film?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, they had to be convinced, and I had to meet the scientists,
and I had to explain myself. And I had to explain myself how I would do it
technically.

Of course, the restrictions were enormous. I was only allowed four hours a day
for a week. I was only allowed three men with me. I was only allowed to carry
along what we could carry in our hands. So we couldn't move heavy equipment in
there and install it - lights that would only emit light without any
temperature. And, of course, all the restrictions, you never step off the metal
walkway.

This is why the crew sometimes could not hide away. You cannot just step behind
the camera and hide, because you would step on the floor of the cave.

GROSS: And they wanted you to keep on the walk so that you didn't contaminate
the rest of the cave, yeah.

Mr. HERZOG: Oh, you never - can never touch anything. It's not just
contaminating. There are footprints, fairly fresh footprints. You do not want
to superimpose your print of your hiking boot upon it. There's...

GROSS: Oh, over the cave-bear print. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, you just don't do this. And there's a footprint of a child,
maybe eight-year-old, this very mysterious. We couldn't film it. We were not
allowed, because it was deep in the recess of the cave.

The mysterious thing is that next to this footprint, probably a boy, probably
around eight years old, parallel to it runs the footprint of a wolf. And I was
very, very puzzled: Did the wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as
friends? Or did the wolf leave its footprints 5,000 years later? It's stunning.
The lapse of time is completely and utterly stunning.

GROSS: My guest is Warner Herzog. His new 3-D documentary is called "Cave of
Forgotten Dreams."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is filmmaker Warner Herzog, and
we're talking about his new documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which is a
3-D documentary he shot in a recently discovered cave in France. And it has the
oldest cave paintings ever discovered. And he shows those cave paintings, and
they are - they're really remarkable.

Would you describe the first time you went into the cave and what the sensation
was like of being in it?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, I can describe it. I was allowed one hour before, about a
month before I started shooting, because I insisted I had to have a look, a
quick look, at what was awaiting me, how I could move, where I could put a
camera, how big a tripod, for example, could be. So I was allowed one hour.

And it was just a moment of complete awe. There's nothing else, just awe, and,
of course, surprises, because I was not prepared for the fact that the cave is
so beautiful. It's like crystal cathedrals and stalactites and stalagmites and
just like a fairy-tale universe down there, and I was not prepared.

I knew, yes, there were some bones, but there are actually 4,000 bones, mostly
cave bear, today extinct, skulls, vertebrae, ribcages, 4,000 of them, among
them not a single human bone because there was no human habitation in this
cave. They only used it for painting.

So that's all the things you see first, and you are stunned by it, because you
didn't expect it. And then facing the paintings, it's just sheer awe how
beautiful and how accomplished they are.

GROSS: And you mention it's this kind of crystal landscape. Everything is
covered in this calcified crystal. Where does that come from?

Mr. HERZOG: Seeping water that actually leaves layers, creates formations of
stalactites and stalagmites. But it's also significant, it is so fresh, it is
so as if it had been left yesterday. Things are so fresh, and all of a sudden,
you see a painting of a cave bear, a charcoal painting, and about half-an-inch
layer of calcite over it, which takes thousands of years to form. So you know
this is not a forgery.

That was actually the first indication: This is not a forgery. This is for
real. And, of course, through carbon, radio-carbon dating, you can establish
fairly precisely when was the painting done.

There are swipe-marks of torches. You see, when a torch burns down, and in
order to rekindle it, it's like cutting the wick of a candle, you swipe the
torch against the wall. And little fragments of charcoal were analyzed through
radio-carbon dating, and we know pretty precisely when somebody swiped this
torch - something, let's say, 28,400 years ago.

GROSS: What did the air feel and smell like in the cave when you first entered?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, it's slightly humid, and, of course, I have a perfume, a
master perfumer in the film, because there is a plan to recreate the cave
three-dimensionally outside in some sort of what I call the Disneyland version.

Since nobody's going to be allowed in the cave, they will replicate the entire
cave and replicate the paintings on the walls. And there was even a plan to
recreate - of course, in our imagination - the odor, the scent inside of the
caves, which means maybe some carrion of rotting cave bears, some fire, some
whatever, resins.

And I found a master perfumer who describes, who fantasizes wildly about how
the odor may have been 32,000 years ago. However, when you are entering there,
it's slightly humid, no significant traces of any smell of anything prehistoric
in there.

GROSS: Would you describe how the people who discovered the cave managed to
find it?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. In particular, the main discoverer, Jean-Marie Chauvet, has
been out there. And you have to understand there's a dramatic gorge and a stone
arc, a natural arc spans it, a fantastic piece of landscape, almost like out of
a Wagner opera, like staging a Wagner opera.

And apparently, this has attracted prehistoric man. I think romanticism is not
our property alone, not the property of the Romanticists. There must have been
a feeling among these people, because it's significant that six or seven other
caves are, like, in a cluster around this spectacular arc.

And they were out trying to find other caves, and I think they mostly looked
for drafts of air, very faint drafts of air. I think Chauvet put his cheek to
the rocks and tried to feel something, and Eliette Brunel, I think, with the
back of her hand, was feeling around.

They sensed a draft of air, cleared out debris and rocks and found a shaft, a
tunnel, a horizontal tunnel, barely wide enough to crawl into. And then it ends
up in the vertical drop. And they were in there, and they immediately sealed it
off again when they saw the importance of what they had found. They did
everything right, everything.

GROSS: Why did you want to use 3-D? And a lot of people are asking the
question: 3-D to show two-dimensional cave paintings? Why do you need 3-D?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, that was my opinion when I saw photos. It looked almost like
flat walls, maybe slightly undulating or so. And thank God I went in there
without any camera a month before shooting.

And what you see in there, it's limestone, and you have these wildly undulating
walls. You have bulges and niches and pendants of rock. And there's a real
incredible drama of formation.

And the artists utilized it for their paintings, for the drama of paintings.
You see a horse that comes out very shyly out of a recess, of a niche. You see
wild use of pendants or a bulge of the rock now is a bulging neck of a bison
coming at you.

So it was immediately clear that - not only clear, it was imperative to do this
in 3-D, as we were probably the only ones ever allowed to film.

GROSS: And also, like, the stalactites and stalagmites in 3-D are really
remarkable to behold.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: Yes.

GROSS: So you were only allowed not only a limited amount of time, but a
limited amount of space. You couldn't lug in whatever equipment you wanted to.
It had to be proportionate to the walkway that you were confined to...

Mr. HERZOG: Exactly, yeah.

GROSS: ...and to the proportions of the cave. So did you have to customize your
equipment in order to even bring it in?

Mr. HERZOG: We did, yes. And, of course, 3-D cameras are fairly clumsy. And, of
course, we were not allowed to have support from outside. You see, the climate
in the cave is so delicate, they opened the steel door for entering, and they
opened it for getting us out. But if you had forgotten something, yes, we would
open the door again, but that would have meant the end of the day of shooting.

And for 3-D, when you have a wider shot and you see a large part of the cave
and you move very close into one particular painting, you have to reconfigure
your entire camera. You have to build - literally build a different camera,
because in 3-D, the two eyes, or rather the two lenses, have to move closer to
each other. And when you are fairly close, these two eyes or lenses have to
squint slightly.

So in semi-darkness, only with a few screwdrivers and with the help of torch
light, we built our own camera for closer shots. But - which you can do if you
have real, real competent, good people with you.

GROSS: Wow, and you'd never worked with 3-D before. So you were just adjusting
to it yourself.

Mr. HERZOG: No. Well, you have to be quick, and you better do it. You better do
it right, because that's the only shot you have.

GROSS: My guest, Warner Herzog, will be back in the second half of the show to
talk more about his new 3-D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with film director Werner
Herzog. His films include: "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," "Fitzcaraldo,"
"Nosferatu the Vampire," "Grizzly Man" and ‘Rescue Dawn." His new film is a 3-D
documentary shot inside the Chauvet Cave in France. It was discovered in 1994
and has cave paintings 30,000 years old, the oldest that scientists know of.
The climate and ecology in the cave are so fragile that visitors are not
allowed in. When Herzog got permission to film, he had to follow strict rules
that required him to customize his 3-D equipment so it would be small enough to
take inside.

One of the things I especially liked about your use of 3-D is that you used it
to represent, as accurately as you could, the unique, rare world of this cave,
as opposed to some kind of fantasy world where, you know, you’re using 3-D for
special effects. Like there isn't a part in your movie where it's like oh my
god, that bird is flying into the audience. He's in front of my face. You
know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You’re not using it to like scare or shock the audience. You’re using it
to show what’s going on in this cave. What did you learn about visual
perception from working in 3-D? Do you feel like you started seeing things
differently, knowing that you were shooting it on 3-D?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, I saw things differently, and not only seeing it, it’s a form
of narration. When you start editing and you have to be aware, you cannot edit
very fast like - and that’s a mistake of many of the 3-D films nowadays. They
use the same very quick cut, cut, cut, cut, cut technique of action movies.
However, our eye, our brain needs a little more time to adapt to a new three
dimensional shot, a reality, so they are cutting too fast. I always understood
3-D, not only as a specific spatial formation, I also sensed there was a
certain different way of time, of narrating it - immersing yourself, with
music, into it. So it's a highly complex thing. And of course, in a very
complex way, I saw the cave differently and that’s how I shot it.

GROSS: Is 3-D asking our eyes and our brains to process images differently than
a two dimensional film?

Mr. HERZOG: Yes it is. It’s a little bit like when you listen to sound when
you're in a street cafe and noise around you and traffic noise. The brain is
very selective. We only hear what you are saying opposite to me and we filter
out the rest. But when you listen to a tape recording of it, it's very hard to
even make out what we said to each other. And it’s similar with 3-D filming or
2-D filming. 3-D filming never somehow allows you to step back into an easy
mode where you can filter things out.

Our brain is made to avoid 3-D most of the time. We have one dominant eye which
sees only in 2-D and a peripheral second, the other eye, peripherally only sees
in 3-D. So the brain is lazy and tries to avoid seeing 3-D. And in a 3-D movie
we are forced to see 3-D all the time and it’s in a way it's tiring.

GROSS: Now there's a scene in your documentary about the cave in which you're
talking about the possibility with all the torches inside that our ancestors
would have been able to see their shadows and see shadows on the wall.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. Most certainly, yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And that leads you to think about shadow dancing, and that leads
you to think about Fred Astaire and the shadow dancing scene. And then you show
the Fred Astaire...

Mr. HERZOG: I couldn't help it.

GROSS: You couldn't help it.

Mr. HERZOG: I could not help it.

GROSS: No. No. I have to...

Mr. HERZOG: Because...

GROSS: I have to stop you here. Wait. Wait, wait. Wait, wait.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I actually met you a few years ago at a reception after you, after a
screening of your films at the University of Pennsylvania. And you were talking
about how you had been watching Fred Astaire films. So I thought, okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I see how Fred Astaire ended up in this documentary about a 30,000-year-
old cave because you were watching Fred Astaire films.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Go ahead. Yes.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. That is correct. Yeah. It is actually arguably it was for me
certainly the greatest singing sequence in all of film history, Fred Astaire
dancing with his own shadows. And all of a sudden he stops and the shadows
become independent and dance without him and he has to catch up with them. I
mean it’s just so quintessential movie. It can't be, it can't get more
beautiful. It's actually from "Swing Time."

And when you look at the cave and there are certain panels, there's evidence of
some fires on the ground. They were not for cooking. They were because there’s
no evidence of any habitation in there. They were used for illumination. You
have to step in front of these fires to look at the images. And, of course,
when you move you must see your own shadow. And immediately Fred Astaire comes
to mind, who did something 32,000 years later, which is essentially what we can
imagine for early Paleolithic people.

GROSS: Now, the question comes up: what’s the difference between a Werner
Herzog documentary about the cave and anybody else's, you know, a National
Geographic documentary about a cave? And I think you just answered that in a
way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: I think...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Your imagination is seeing all of these connections. Suddenly Fred
Astaire is shadow dancing in your movie and, you know, you’re talking, you
know, in your narration not just about the fact but about things that makes you
think about.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. And our imagination, and our entire approach as human beings.
How do we enter a cave like this? How do we experience it? How does it surpass
our wildest dreams? All this I think you would not see in a National Geographic
documentary.

GROSS: As wonderful as those National Geographic documentaries are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: Mine are better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: Sorry for saying that. I say it only in quotes.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: My apologies. National Geographic, accept my apologies. But I think
I know my films are different and I think the way I shot and present "Cave of
Forgotten Dreams" is different and it’s a position which moves away from what
you normally expect from a documentary. We have to deal with reality in new
ways. We have to find a new answer to all these dramatic shifts in perception
of reality.

GROSS: And I’ll just...

Mr. HERZOG: But it’s all A’s. Yeah.

GROSS: I’ll just say I'm glad that your films and National Geographic films
exist and...

Mr. HERZOG: All right.

GROSS: Yes.

Mr. HERZOG: Let’s accept it like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERZOG: There is cohabitation.

GROSS: Cohabitation. Exactly.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes.

GROSS: My guest is Werner Herzog. His new 3-D documentary is called "Cave of
Forgotten Dreams."

We’ll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is film director Werner Herzog and
his new movie "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is a 3-D documentary about a recently
discovered cave in France that has the oldest known cave paintings, and it's a
magnificent cave that is rendered in 3-D.

So, when I was watching your cave documentary, and there were references to
cave bears that existed then and are now long extinct.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes.

GROSS: I couldn't help but think of the documentary that you made "Grizzly
Man," which is such a terrific film. And it's a documentary about Timothy
Treadwell, this guy who went to the wild to film grizzly bears and saw himself
as like the friend of the grizzlies, but it was not an environment that a human
belonged in and eventually he was eaten. He and his girlfriend were eaten by a
bear. And he actually got that on audiotape and the audiotape survived their
deaths.

So thinking about when you were in the cave and thinking about all the cave
bears that used to be in there, did you think about "Grizzly Man?"

Mr. HERZOG: I always think, in a way, about "Grizzly Man." Whenever I step out
into nature or wild nature I immediately have Timothy Treadwell present. And,
of course, he marks a position which, of course, was a tragic misunderstanding
of wild nature. He romanticized it and he saw it as if the bears were all like
in Walt Disney movies, friendly, fluffy creatures. Of course, they are
ferocious and they ultimately eat you and they kill you. So Treadwell is always
present in my life. I can't just discard this incredible man, this wonderful
man in a movie. He is always around somehow.

GROSS: You seem to really be attracted to - I know I'm stating the obvious here
- to extreme personalities and extreme environments. In terms of personalities
you have Timothy Treadwell from "Grizzly Man," the character of Aguirre in
"Aguirre, The Wrath of God" and then, of course, you’re attracted to extreme
environments. You did a documentary about this recently discovered cave that’s
30,000 years old. You did a documentary about discoveries in Antarctica.

Do you consider yourself to be an extreme personality?

Mr. HERZOG: Difficult question. No I don't think so. I’m a professional. I’m a
filmmaker. And I think what you are trying to combine makes a lot of sense.
Many people tell me ah, you have been everywhere. You have shot in the Amazon,
in the Sahara Desert, in Antarctica even. That would be horizontally spreading
out, but I've always tried to look deep into the human condition. This is why I
do a film on Timothy Treadwell. This is why I film "Aguirre, The Wrath of God"
and other films. So it's always a look deep into the abyss, into the deepest
recesses of the human soul or as far as you can scrutinize with a camera.

And it may be significant At the moment, I'm doing a film on death row inmates
and I thought about a title and I came up with "Gazing into the Abyss." And
then the name of a person on death row like Joseph Garcia on death row, Michael
Perry on death row, Linda Carty on death row. So, but all under the umbrella
title, "Gazing into the Abyss." And all of a sudden it dawned on me well, that
would have been a great title for the cave film. It would have been a great
title for Timothy Treadwell. It would have been a great title for "Aguirre, The
Wrath of God," as if I was more somebody who is vertically looking as deep as
it gets.

GROSS: So I know one of the things - one of the questions that interests you
about the cave – I think this is one of the questions that interests you is
where there kind of spiritual ceremonies there? Is that one of the uses of the
cave? And I'm wondering if you have ever practiced religion. Because I think
one of the musics you’re interested in is Gregorian chant.

Mr. HERZOG: Yes. Of course, it's a variety of questions. But we can assume that
there was probably some religious ceremonies there, maybe some monastic.
Although, today we should touch this term only with a pair of pliers because a
new age vapid babble about pseudo-philosophy uses, abuses Shamanism. So
probably something like that, but we simply do not know. We just do not know.
But when you see an altar like rock and carefully placed almost like staged a
fresh skull of a cave bear on it and evidence of charcoal around it as if they
were fumigating it, you have, it's not illegitimate to say this probably was a
staging for a religious ceremony. We do not know. And I think the newer
generation of archaeologists points out we have to take it as it is. This is
what we see. Whether it was religious or not we will never know.

GROSS: And yourself?

Mr. HERZOG: Well, I had an intense religious faith in my adolescence and I do
understand religious sentiment. I do understand the quest for something higher,
something beyond us, has been a very dramatic faith in my life and although I'm
not a religious person anymore, it has left me in a way, but I do understand
people who are deeply religious.

GROSS: Well, Werner Herzog, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HERZOG: You are very welcome.

GROSS: Werner Herzog’s new 3-D documentary is called "Cave of Forgotten
Dreams." You can watch the scene of Fred Astaire dancing with his shadows on
our website, freshair.npr.org.
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The Past, Always Present In The Atacama Dark

TERRY GROSS, host:

Okay, we're going to go from one extreme to another: from cave to desert.

Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of a new film set in Chile's harsh
northern desert. It's called "Nostalgia for the Light," and it's directed by
Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman. He first won international attention in the
late 1970s with his three-part epic, "The Battle of Chile," which has been
called one of the greatest documentaries ever made. He's made numerous films on
everything from liberation theology to explorers who trace the roots of Jules
Verne novels.

John says "Nostalgia for the Light" grapples with the deepest mysteries of
life.

JOHN POWERS: Perhaps the most famous line in late-20th-century literature comes
from Milan Kundera: The struggle of man against power, he wrote, is the
struggle of memory against forgetting.

One man who never stopped struggling is Patricio Guzman, the Chilean filmmaker
who was imprisoned during the U.S.-backed coup that toppled Chile's elected
president, Salvador Allende, and installed a military dictatorship that lasted
the next 17 years. Guzman's documentaries have done as much as anything to keep
alive the world's memory of what happened to his country that Sept. 11th, 1973.

Of course, it's been 38 years since the coup, and Guzman is now 70. Though he
hasn't forgotten anything, he's moved beyond horrified anger. In fact, he's
sure never made a more beautiful or profound movie than his new one, "Nostalgia
for the Light," an exquisitely shot essay on ultimate things: time, space,
memory and how creatures so small and frail as human beings find meaning in a
gigantic cosmos.

"Nostalgia for the Light" focuses on the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile stretch of
high plateau in northern Chile that is the driest place on earth. It never
rains. Composed of salt, sand and lava, the place has the bleak, ravishing
beauty of a distant and forbidding planet. But because it's so high, so dry and
so far from big cities, its clear skies make it home to some of the world's
great observatories. At night, the stars shine so brightly, they cast shadows.

Nothing grows in the Atacama Desert, but it does draw three kinds of people,
all searching for the truth of the past. There are the astronomers who study
light from outer space, which means that what they're seeing in their
telescopes is always something that already happened, but is only now reaching
Earth. There are the archaeologists, who study the rock paintings and
beautifully preserved bodies of the pre-Columbian peoples who traveled across
the landscape.

And finally, there are old women who wander this vast desert with tiny shovels,
looking for the remains of their sons, daughters and husbands. You see, the
dictatorship used this hostile environment to jail political prisoners - they
housed them in a desolate 19th-century mining camp - and to dump the bodies of
those it had murdered. These women seek the past with particular urgency -
heroically, obsessively, almost crazily searching for what became of their
loved ones.

In fact, they're after the truth behind the physical remains. But historical
memory remains is an iffy business in Chile. In Santiago a few years ago, I got
on the subway near the statue commemorating Salvador Allende, and I got out
across from September 11th Avenue - a street commemorating the coup that ended
in his death.

But the coup happened nearly 40 years ago. That's why Guzman went to the
Atacama Desert to shoot under its millions of stars. He knew that this
landscape puts any event - not least a coup in a small, isolated country - into
cosmic perspective. In fact, it threatens to reduce anything human to just a
speck in time and space - which is to say, this movie isn't only about Chile.

Guzman's movie got me to thinking about the historical traumas whose ripples
still touch my own untraumatized life in Southern California - American
slavery, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the repression
in Central America. For those who've survived such tragedies or live intimately
with their aftershocks, the questions are tricky and painful. How do we
remember and honor our victims without letting their suffering define us or
imprison us, or make us fight the same battles over and over? How do we hold on
to the past, yet let go?

I don't know the answer to such questions, but I do know that there's no single
correct one. Watching "Nostalgia for the Light," I suddenly remembered visiting
the memorial to the Jewish heroes who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. I
was surrounded by an Israeli school group, whose teachers, moved to tears by
what struck them as sacred ground, were aghast to see their students giggling,
horsing around and flirting - in short, being teenagers. And though my brain
sympathized with the adults who honored the memory of those blood-stained
cobblestones, my body was on the side of the kids, who were living, breathing,
exuberant proof that life goes on.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed
"Nostalgia for the Light" by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman.

Coming up, a recording by saxophonist Tim Berne that was lost, and now 14
years, later has been released.

Jazz critic Ken Whitehead will have a review after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Tim Berne: Slow-Cooked Jazz

TERRY GROSS, host:

Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of a new release by Brooklyn-based
saxophonist and composer Tim Berne. Kevin says Berne is one of the underrated
composers and band leaders in contemporary jazz, and that this new album really
shows off his strengths.

(Soundbite of music)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Saxophonist Tim Berne came up on New York's so-called downtown
scene 30 years ago. That scene's known for postmodern jump-cutters like John
Zorn, who'd leap from one style to another in the space of a beat. But Berne
went another way. He's fascinated by gradual transitions. In his music,
improvisers take their time, wending their way from theme to theme over a long,
continuous set.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: That's one of the shortest transition on Tim Berne's album
"Insomnia," a lost-and-found live recording from 1997, now out on the Clean
Feed label. The music sounds so fresh, that 14-year wait is barely worth
mentioning. It's pre-stood the test of time. Berne plays in all sorts of
combos, but the sound here is more sumptuous than usual, owing to expanded
resources. Eight pieces include a string trio of violin, cello and bass,
augmented by a rhythm instrument rare in improvised music: Marc Ducret plays
acoustic 12-string guitar with a woody, steely, ringing sound. Here's Ducret
with trumpeter Baikida Carroll, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jim Black.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Tim Berne likes long pieces where players drop in and out. The
shorter of two suites on the new "Insomnia" runs half an hour. But he brings a
keen sense of proportion to the music, even when the players spend far more
time inching between melodies than playing those lovely themes themselves. The
tunes are sturdy bridge piers, supporting the improvisations that span them.
Early on, Berne learned from his mentor Julius Hemphill the power of majestic
long tones, and of taking your time in a music where players often hurry.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Tim Berne's written lines are dissonant, but orderly. Their strong
shapes are ready-made for improvised paraphrase. Sometimes, a renegade soloist
will spin variations right over the melody, so you get the tune and the
improvisation at the same time.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: I love the undulating texture of Tim Berne's octet sound, as Chris
Speed's clarinet melds with violin, and violin with cello, and cello with
Berne's alto sax, and his baritone sax with bass. That blurring of timbres adds
an air of mystery, like ghostly figures passing through long-exposure
photographs. But the progress of Berne's long suites is like a road novel, full
of picaresque or elliptical episodes, with heroes who end up far from where
they started. Or, put yet another way, Tim Berne is a master of slow cooking.
He keeps you waiting, but it's worth it.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the jazz columnist for eMusic.com and the author of
the book "Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide." He reviewed Tim Berne's new album
"Insomnia" on the Clean Feed label.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website: freshair.npr.org.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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