Documentaries can be surprisingly easy to pull off. Basically any filmmaker with half a brain can decide to make a movie about XYZ subject and, with significant effort, tell a story about XYZ subject. Only the truly awful documentaries somehow managed to forget they’re about anything. Even in the case of Michael Moore, who’s really a fairly awful filmmaker, even if I agree with 90% of the things he says, can manage to sum up his films into an easily obtainable message. That was my fear for Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a new 3D documentary by acclaimed director Werner Herzog. The fear was that he’d just make a movie about cave paintings.
Of course he didn’t just do that. This is Werner Herzog. He makes the best documentaries in the world in between taking bullets to the chest and saving semi-famous actors from car wrecks.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the infamous Chauvet-Point-d’Arc cave in southern France, home to the oldest discovered cave paintings and, as such, the oldest human artwork in the entire world. It needs to be said that this is one of the most protected sites in all the planet, and Herzog’s opportunity to shoot inside the caves, even to view the paintings firsthand, required special permission from the French government and a strict set of rules for every person inside the cave. Herzog could only work with a crew of four, shooting for only four hours a day, thanks to high levels of radon and carbon dioxide in the cave’s lower reaches, while also restricting movement to a small walkway through the center of the cave. Needless to say, this would pose a significant problem for any filmmaker.
However, the footage that Herzog manages to capture of the caves is nothing short of breathtaking. Large portions of the film are simply shots of the various cave paintings, to either the natural silence of the cave or with the film’s haunting score in the background. The gravity of the situation is not lost. These are not only images that very few people are allowed to see live, but it is also a link to human history 30,000 years old. Just the base images on film, with that knowledge in mind, makes for an extremely compelling experience.
Of course, Herzog doesn’t stop there. The film establishes, fairly early on, that given the 30,000 years of maximum time differences between the paintings and the people exploring the caves, there’s no way to really know what went on in the cave, or why the paintings were so important. Rather than concern itself with the what of the caves, the film focuses more on the why. Why is it at this specific point in time, just as homo sapiens began coming into their own in the world, that paintings like this are discovered, or why throughout the world other representations of humans and animals are found in other paintings or carved idols? Herzog sees this as a sort of birth of the modern human spirit. He explores everything from the sociological to the spiritual ramifications of the discoveries of Chauvet cave and presents an utterly compelling vision of how far we, as a species has come in a short time, cosmically speaking, while perhaps presenting a chilling vision of how we may be viewed thousands of years from now. Everything we do, from the gods we worship to the food we eat and how we eat it, makes an impact on our art today, and Herzog shows this was just as true 30,000 years ago.
One of the chief hooks of this film, and possibly a factor causing hang-ups in many people, is that Herzog shot it entirely in 3D, something he claimed was best used as a gimmick. That said, it’s easy to see why Herzog decided to shoot the film in 3D, using specially-designed cameras, many of which had to be assembled within the caves themselves. In all the paintings, every one, the artists used the contours and textures of the cavern walls within each figure. A horse might seems to be galloping across a plain, due to the way it’s painted across a specifically-textured place in the rock. It’s an utterly amazing effect, and it really couldn’t be captured in quite the same way without being able to view the depth of field as totally as Herzog portrays it. I’m no huge fan of 3D, but this is the technology used absolutely correctly and to startlingly amazing effect.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a rare masterpiece and an absolute wonder to behold. I cannot stress enough the majesty and the beauty of the film, in every possibly way. I can only say that the pacing of the ninety minute film lagged a certain amount in the last half hour, and I admit it had me checking my watch a few times while watching a fifty-year-old French scientist trying to explain how primitive man might have hunted with a spear. It’s as close to perfect as we’re realistically going to get, in a documentary. See it in any way possible.
Sam Membrino: Herzog’s latest film draws in the viewer not with the images on the movie screen but with the images on the walls of Chauvet cave. The unbelievable history of the cave, sealed off completely from the outside world for 32,000 years, is truly mind-boggling. Herzog, of course, brings his unique brand of narration to the film, looking at the whimsical and the absurd alongside the historically ground-breaking. The lack of access to many of the cave’s walls prohibit the film from achieving a better score, but if you have any interest in pre-historic art, check this one out. 71 – Good.