Werner Herzog is already well known as a filmmaker, so his decision to also become a documentarian was a slightly unexpected one, but not an altogether unfruitful one. Herzog has shown an absolute fascination with the world, and with the people who interact with it, that is unparalleled, especially when compared with the cold distance employed by most documentarians with their subjects. For the Book, the editors saw fit to select Cave of Forgotten Dreams as a representation of this aspect of Herzog’s work, for several reasons. One, the importance of the subject of the film is second to none in the history of human culture. Second, this was Herzog’s first (and to date only) use of 3D technology, and it makes a great case as to the importance and significance that 3D filming can lend to certain topics.
The Chauvet Cave was discovered in 1994 by a small group of explorers looking for the source of air gusts coming out of the ground, a common indicator of underground caves. Upon its discovery, deep inside the cave were found paintings done by hand of various animals, which thanks to dating techniques were found to be the oldest known paintings in the history of humanity, more than double the age of the previously known oldest examples. Immediately, the cave was sealed with a steel door, and access was extremely restricted, to preserve the paintings as best as possible. Herzog’s crew, limited to a maximum of 4 inside the cave, was given unprecedented access to film the cave and the paintings under strict guidelines, in order to capture and retain the majesty of the paintings for all eternity. It is this endeavor that convinced Herzog to use 3D to capture the images, in order to properly portray the contours of the cave and how they aid the effects of the paintings themselves. I unfortunately wasn’t able to see this in 3D, so I was left merely to admire the paintings themselves rather than to basically be in the cave, but even still, it is quite amazing to behold. Herzog also includes numerous interviews and questionings of scientists, archaeologists, and various other people associated with the cave, as his time inside the cave was limited as well, and it’s here that the film is fleshed out more than it otherwise would be.
Still, I guess that was my main issue with Cave of Forgotten Dreams; even at a mere hour and a half long, it didn’t seem like it was worth having a full-length documentary on the subject of just looking at cave paintings, as important and historical as these paintings no doubt were. To his credit, Herzog treats the subject with the proper amount of reverence and interest, but it is really up to the audience to decide whether they themselves are interested enough to warrant watching a full-length documentary on it. For me, I ended up just on the other side of that line; I was much more accepting of the need to capture these images before they are potentially lost forever than I was interested in looking at cave paintings for 90 minutes. That said, this was very good, mostly thanks to Herzog and his offbeat way of looking at the world and at things that interest him; his narration, for instance, was a constant highlight for me. Just be aware of the rather odd postscript of the film, which deals with albino crocodiles, which while there to make a point still seemed a little weird, even for Herzog.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10