During a live interview with director Werner Herzog after a screening of his 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, journalist Jason Solomons described the eclectic filmmaker’s latest creation rather poetically as “an examination of all that makes us human”. In the same interview the director went on to sternly describe this work as “a film about perception”, whilst also jovially labeling it as a “science fiction fantasy”. Meanwhile, the dramatic text that descends upon us in the film’s trailer describes it as a chance to “witness one of mankind’s greatest discoveries” and also “a remarkable 3D journey”. For a film to garner such varied and sometimes contrasting labels, you would expect it to be a confused and meandering offering, but in stark contrast Cave of Forgotten Dreams manages to feel like one of the most focused, eye-opening films I’ve ever seen.
Unearthed seven days before christmas 1994, the Chauvet caves are infamous for housing the earliest known cave paintings ever to be discovered and ultimately believed to contain many secrets surrounding the lifestyle of early man. Since first being explored over 15 years ago, the caves have been heavily protected by the powers that be, to ensure its contents are never damaged by the hands of an untrained man (or woman). So how is it then, that a controversial 68 year old German director, finds himself granted access to tell the stories of the Chauvet caves? Well the French minister of culture being a fan of your work is a pretty good start, but still some persuasion was needed. So Herzog offered to work as an employee for the France’s department of culture, even claiming €1 as his fee and in return the director agreed to hand his film over to the French, allowing them to screen it in educational establishments for free.
Herzog claims the subjects of his films always “stumble into him” even going as far as stating it is more like a “home invasion” with ideas “haunting him” and this couldn’t be more true than with Cave of Forgotten Dreams. He admits to being mesmerized by cave art at a young age, recalling a heart-warming story of a 12 year old Herzog (can you imagine what that was like?) working as a ball-boy at a tennis club just so he could afford a book on the subject. 56 years later and this childhood fascination has developed into probably one of the most important pieces of documentation on the subject that has and possibly will ever be made.
Shooting underground in a cave can be difficult enough, but using the latest 3D technology and having restrictive time limits meant that this film was always going to be a challenge. With only six days filming, four hours a day, Herzog had to be precise with his shooting, a process which he described as being like “surgeons performing open heart surgery”. The cinematography is as varied as you’ll probably see in a documentary, jumping from experimental digital handheld shots, to gliding, sweeping sequences filmed from some kind of remote controlled aircraft. The decision to shoot 3D was described as essential by the director and watching the film you can see why. Textures, bulges and curves were all so important in the cave art and by making his film 3D, Herzog has made them important in his art as well. The 3D works best when shooting light dancing across the paintings, spiraling stalagmites/stalactites or gliding over cave walls, but in the places it succeeds there are also places it fails. Interviews feel pointless and gimmicky in 3D, but then again what could Herzog do, have his audience put their glasses off and on throughout the film. The positives of the 3D viewing experience for once far outweigh the negatives and watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams almost feels as if it is the first 3D film you’ve ever seen.
In true Herzogian fashion, his hypnotically engaging narration weaves in wider metaphysical contemplations as we learn more about the Paleolithic art and its creators. Through his understated and gently humorous voiceover, we are invited to reflect on our primal desire to communicate and represent the world around us, evolution and our place within it, and ultimately what it means to be human. – official Cave of forgotten Dreams website.
As you would expect from a Herzog documentary the narration is a stand out feature of the film with the gravelly voiced director’s reflective thoughts leaving us in states of bewilderment, amusement and awe as his story unfolds. For fans of Herzog and even those who have seen Ramin Bahrani’s engrossing short Plastic Bag, you’ll probably be used to his voiceover style by now. For those not accustomed to the German’s dulcet tones rumbling poetically over the visuals I imagine it could take some getting used to (I probably shouldn’t admit this, but at times it even reminded me of my own Arnie impression). The voiceover contributes highly to the film’s originality and unusualness and along with the sporadic, inventive soundtrack gives the film a certain other-worldliness at times. Although it’s probably not best to keep referring to Herzog’s narration as the “voice of god” as Jason Solomons found out, when the director corrected him after he used this phrase on several occasions.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams never feels like it’s trying too hard to answer the question of why the cave art was created, but instead uses it to start a debate about what it means for all of us as human beings. Herzog’s film feels like something so much more important than just another documentary and whether you want to look at it as a historic recording, a discussion on humanity, a cinematic revolution or at the very least a great demonstration of 3D technology, it’s a work with much to be lauded.
Once again Herzog manages to astound with his filmmaking and with his next project set in Death Row, which he describes as “once again staring into an abyss”, we eagerly await what surprises he has for us around the next corner.