Cave of Forgotten Dreams

documentary review

Calling Werner Herzog’s latest film a documentary is both a misstatement and an understatement. Like Grizzly Man and Conversations at the End of the World, it
filters its raw material through the prism of Herzog’s unique worldview, and the experience is heightened (as always) by narration in the filmmaker’s distinctive voice, which seems to give even casual statements a feeling of substance.

The subject matter is inherently intriguing: an exploration of the Chauvet Cave, which was sealed off from the world until its discovery in 1994, when it was found to contain the world’s first examples of cave paintings, perfectly preserved. These priceless expressions of early man—which may be as much as 35,000 years old—are kept off-limits, in order to maintain them in a pristine state, but once a year, the French government allows a small crew of—

—archeologists to enter the hallowed space. Herzog was permitted to accompany them in order to make this often-hypnotic film—in 3-D.

Herzog augments the cave material with interviews, talking to articulate experts about how prehistoric man survived, and what the drawings and paintings represent. In a number of cases he tries to “lead the witness” by imposing his views on their answers but they usually resist his interpretations. That’s fine; as an artist with a vivid imagination, he can’t be expected to remain in the realm of the concrete.

As for the 3-D, this is the best argument for the process I’ve seen in a long time. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is like a scenic Viewmaster slide come to life; it’s incredibly sharp and vivid (at least, it was in the Expand system at the screening I attended). This is a credit to director of photography Peter Zeitlinger, who painstakingly designed special camera rigs to shoot inside the caves without leaving the walkways to which his crew was restricted. But even in the open air, he and Herzog seem to enjoy the possibilities of 3-D: when Herzog interviews a historical expert about early man’s hunting implements, the agreeable fellow holds various spears at an angle that thrusts them out into the audience as effectively as the paddle-ball man did in House of Wax decades ago.

The very title Cave of Forgotten Dreams indicates Herzog’s point of view: these are not mere remnants of an early civilization. Whether or not you share his imaginings, his film is certain to interest and entertain you, and give you a 3-D experience that’s well worth the price of admission.

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May 2024