Auteur Werner Herzog fulfills his lifelong dream of exploring ancient art 

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 said 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,” he said. “I wanted this book. I had to have it.”

With only a dollar-a-month allowance, the German-born Herzog, 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 said, 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.

But no conversation with the director would be complete without at least one startling, if unrelated, revelation, and on this day he does not disappoint.

“I must confess that I did not know ‘The Simpsons’ was an animated show,” he said of the series on which he made a recent cameo. “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.”

IF YOU GO

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Starring Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes
Written by Werner Herzog, Judith Thurman
Directed by Werner Herzog
Rated G
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes

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Rossiter Drake

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