Werner Herzog brings us yet another fascinating documentary with “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” in which he and several others get to explore the Chauvet cave located in Southern France. Inside are some of the oldest drawings made by humans which have been amazingly preserved over tens of thousands of years. Seeing this documentary is a treat because this cave has been closed off to the general public to protect it from harm, and we would not have been able to see what’s inside otherwise.
The fact that he got permission to film inside the cave from the French minister of culture is a miracle. Upon entering, Werner narrates the obstacles he and his four men crew have to deal with. They cannot touch the walls, they are confined to a two foot wide metal walkway, the crew could only use battery powered equipment, and they could only use lighting equipment that did not give off excessive heat. Furthermore, due to the near-toxic levels of radon and carbon dioxide, no one could stay inside the cave for more than four hours at a time.
Taking all that into account, you’d think it would be impractical to film in there at all, especially for a perfectionist of a director. But Werner Herzog is not a filmmaker who is easily deterred, and he makes do with what he has to work with. Along with his crew, he takes on some technical duties like handling a boom mike and lighting. Because of the restricted access they had, many shots have the crew members visible as there was no way to shoot certain scenes without them in the way.
You’re with the crew every step of the way, and you feel like a child holding on to your mother’s hand while visiting a shop with shiny fragile items on display. You want to get up close, but your mother is quick to sternly remind you:
“You can look, but you cannot touch!”
The visuals Herzog and company capture are extraordinary. The drawings of bulls, horses, tigers, bears, and other animals are quite vivid in their renderings, and you wonder what the people who drew them were thinking. The fact that we may never really know what was going through their minds never deters Herzog from asking questions that remain on our minds after the lights in the theatre come up.
There are also some incredible images of stalactites formed over thousands of years and which have gained a beauty not easily manufactured. It reminded me of the underwater scenes in another Herzog documentary, “Encounters At The End Of The World,” in what amazing landscapes can be found on planet Earth. Some of these icy landmarks even have a sparkle to them which makes them all the more wondrous. Heck, seeing them brought back memories of when I did a science experiment in the 3rd grade of creating stalactites in class. Suffice to say, mine were never as impressive as the ones that appear here onscreen.
There are numerous interviews with the scientists involved, and it amazed me just how much we can tell of the first humans thanks to advancements in science. For these people, it’s’ a never ending journey as they work to discover more than what can be seen with the naked eye. Their vast experience has allowed them to see the most specific details of the drawings and of how they originated. You can question what they find, but they are more than persuasive in their examinations.
I was hoping, like in “Encounters At The End Of The World,” that Werner would spend more time learning about the personalities of the archaeologists and of their life outside of work. Sure enough, he does get one man to admit he was a clown before he got interested in archeology, and it makes for one of the movie’s most entertaining moments. None of the others however get the same kind of examination. I guess since these particular people were not living in one of the most isolated places on Earth, Herzog didn’t feel the need to question them as heavily since his main focus was on the cave itself.
“Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” was filmed in 3D, but I was only able to see it in 2D. I wondered if that was an advantage or a disadvantage. Granted, I have had a major disdain for 3D recently as it makes the images on the screen darker than they should be. Still, it would have been interesting to check this one out with the extra dimension.
Viewing it in 2D however made me want to reach out and touch the screen. You do feel like you are moving along with the camera at times, and perhaps seeing this documentary in digital format made me feel that the cave walls were literally right in front of me. Regardless of what format you end up seeing this in, it will be quite the experience.
“Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” is not as enveloping a documentary as the brilliant “Grizzly Man” or the previously mentioned “Encounters At The End Of The World.” At times, the music by Ernst Reijseger is a bit overbearing, and there’s a scene in particular where the use of silence would have perfect. Still, there is much to admire about this Werner Herzog documentary, and we should be thankful he got whatever images he was able to get on film. It is highly unlikely we would have seen these early drawings otherwise, and they make for a fascinating portrait of where humans began.
I also have to say that the one drawing of the four horses side by side remind me of the apocalyptic four horsemen, and I don’t mean the song by Metallica.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
Other movies by Werner Herzog:
Encounters At The End Of The World
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans