With modern man’s devotion to preserving the past, many of us can claim to have seen something spectacularly old. Something so significant to history, we had no choice but to experience it entirely, to become immersed in the movement of time. This dipping into the past is a momentous adventure, and one you feel inclined to share with those around you, with your family, with anyone. And this, surely, is the impetus for Werner Herzog‘s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog desperately wants to share with us the transcendence of his experience, and while he surely takes his audience on a breathtaking journey, it can, on occasion, come at the expense of his film’s harmony.
The Chauvet (Sho-vie) Cave in the Ardeche department of Southern France was discovered in 1994 by three scientists, and has since been kept diligently under lock and key, open only to the those granted access by the French government. The cave is an instance of frozen time, having been sealed up in a rock slide thousands of years ago. Its walls hold the oldest and most beautifully preserved cave paintings ever seen, dating back as far as 32,000 years ago, and detailing the era’s wildlife vibrantly. It is, to be sure, a magnificent site to behold, and one that Herzog does his damnedest to recreate in the theater.
An appreciation of Cave requires from the viewer a healthy respect for emotional, even occasionally sensational filmmaking. Though it may feel like one, with production credits from The History Channel, this is not a long form televised special. The science of Chauvet Cave is surely present, but only as a distinction of spectacle, illuminating the vast treks of time the cave has witnessed and attempting to tell the stories of the cave’s inhabitants. What Herzog is primarily interested in is the human side of this wonder. The director/narrator gives much time to fleshing out the artists: who they were, what they thought, what the world looked like to them, etc. It’s vastly important to understand this distinction when viewing the film. Without doing so, Cave becomes an indulgence of one man’s pathos and very few of us have the time or interest for that. However, if the viewer meets Herzog halfway and allows for some abstraction, the Chauvet Cave really does start to seem a magical place.
The style of this film is hard to articulate. At times it feels familiar as an educational documentary, but these moments rarely last longer than a scientific interview, and then the film dips back into lofty analysis of the human spirit, art, time and its passing, the oral tradition and so on. To bring viewers even deeper into his elevated examinations, Herzog gives much time to simply looking at the cave walls, enlisting the help of composer Ernst Reijseger in facilitating our wandering minds. It is these moments when the 3D is at its most effective, illuminating the warping of the cave walls and the beauty of the artist’s work in utilizing these contours. In general this is some of the most intriguing 3D work to date. Though not the highest quality, it suggests a true purpose in employing the third dimension; a massive breath of fresh air for what is already becoming a terribly stale technique.
It’s interesting that the one element of Cave that most distinguishes it is also the element that ends up hurting it, and that has to be the film’s ambition of theme. While Herzog does a fair job of bringing us into his mindset, he nonetheless has very little regard for our position as audience members who have not and cannot have this experience first hand. When Herzog lapses into lofty pontifications on humanity’s ability to connect through time and the spiritual importance of discoveries like Chauvet Cave, it becomes harder and harder to keep up. Art is perhaps the most personal endeavor a human being can undertake, and by this logic a glimpse at the art of a man who walked 30,000 years ago will most certainly give us insight into who he was, but it’s impossible to forget that you’re sitting in a theater and not walking through a cave, and occasionally one is forced to wonder what those ancient artists would have thought of all this melodramatic exaltation.
Still, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is undoubtedly a film worth watching, and thanks to its dynamic use of 3D, one worth watching in theaters. Werner Herzog hasn’t abandoned any of his initial wonderment, and this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking for its passion. It’s a film that reminds you of the true wonders in the world and the often impassable chasm between us and them. And it’s a film that, with the best of intentions, brings us as close to one of those wonders as we will ever get.