Werner Herzog has cemented his reputation as one of the most original, unique, and fascinating filmmakers of the last half century. With his uncompromising style, memorable imagery, and flitting between genres with apparent ease, the release of another one of his films has become unmissable in my eyes.
The latest in a series of uniquely styled documentaries—after the haunting Grizzly Man and the unforgettably beautiful Encounters At the End of the World—is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which takes us deep into the Ancient French Chauvet cave to look at and explore the oldest cave paintings in the world, dating back some 32,000 years.
The subject might be one of those which seems like a stretch to spend en entire feature documentary on, but it is explored in full detail and is made even more fascinating than it otherwise would be on its own. This is helped largely by the presence of Herzog himself, both as we see him exploring the cave in person/on camera and through his incomparable narration, his deadpan Germanic voice making even the smallest or insignificant detail seem wondrous.
The film marks Herzog’s first foray into the world of 3D, a now overused technology that has become so commonplace in mainstream Hollywood cinema that it’s a surprise when a film isn’t coming out in 3D. To paraphrase Herzog himself, all of his other films weren’t suited to 3D but Cave of Forgotten Dreams intrinsically is. That might seem strange considering the film is about the most ancient of human visuals and 3D signifies “the future of movies,” but Herzog argues that 3D was the right way to go because the paintings themselves are drawn on the contours of the walls, the artists evidently making use of the way the wall comes out at you. And while this is sound logic when it comes to the reasoning behind using 3D on such an unusual subject matter, the film only barely benefits from that extra dimension and no more. It certainly helps make it a more cinematic experience but it only adds so much to the dream-like narrative of the documentary (Herzog has a distinctive way of making documentaries seem like narrative stories rather than mere presentations of fact), and after a while becomes more of a distraction than anything else.
Unlike his previous two documentaries—the aforementioned Grizzly Man and Encounters At the End of the World—Herzog doesn’t have a vast open landscape to play around with here. Although there are segments which showcase the beautiful surroundings, for the majority of Forgotten Dreams we are firmly inside the bowels of the Chauvet cave, giving the film a claustrophobic feel that really puts you in the shoes of one of the few people who are allowed inside to study and marvel (not necessarily in that order). The film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if it didn’t have that sort of transportive quality.
As usual, Herzog has filmed and showcases some truly remarkable imagery that will be imprinted on the viewer’s mind, to ponder and discuss long after Herzog’s hypnotic voice has stopped narrating his vision. Along with the actual imagery of the cave paintings themselves—which are stunning in their own right—Herzog’s choice of camera angles, and the way he jumps between up-close-and-personal shots with “a non-professional camera rig“ and vast shots of the landscape surrounding the caves, make the film intimate and epic in equal measure.
Herzog is a filmmaker who makes you think, ponder questions and themes that you never pondered before but that somehow still resonate on a basic level. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams he focuses on our existence on this planet, what we’re doing here and how or even if we’ll be remembered in tens of thousands of years. We can’t really know, but this film is a memorable, haunting look at a bygone civilization which, just like us (but particularly filmmakers), used visuals to make their mark on the world—to quote Herzog in the film, like “a form of proto-cinema.“ Who’s to say that isn’t true?
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