Saturday, June 11, 2011

SFF Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Within the labyrinthine depths of the infamous Chauvet Cave in Southern France, legendary filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog questions, in his insightful, probing and above all, passionate narration, the origins of a pair of prints preserved next to one another on the cave floor. It is speculated that one was made by an eight year old boy, the other by a wolf. Was the wolf stalking the boy? Were they walking peacefully together? Or was each print created individually, thousands of years apart? We will never know. While he presents his own speculations so thoughtfully, questions to intriguing mysteries such as this one are raised by Herzog both to the host of eccentric scientists, palaeontologists, art historians and perfume specialists he interviews throughout, but are also left for the audience to ponder as we absorb the magic of his mesmerising 3D documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The Chauvet cave was named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the explorer who made the monumental discovery in 1994. Herzog's interest in the cave was prompted by Judith Thurman's New Yorker article "First Impressions"; an inspiration that prompted him to get together a minimal crew and seek special permission from the French Minister of Culture to film his documentary. The cave is now carefully preserved, and because of the near-toxic levels of radon and carbon dioxide in parts of the cave, Herzog and his team were only able to film in the caves for a few hours a day, and under heavy restrictions.

What they discover is nothing short of amazing - hundreds of pictures of animals (not just rhinoceroses, horses and lions, but animals now extinct) drawn with sophistication, detail and accuracy by early man from 32, 000 years ago. What's so incredible about this discovery is the fact that these paintings (which look startlingly recent) are almost twice as old as any previous discovery of pictorial creations by humankind.

Also within the elaborate and extensive cave structure are several other magnificent wonders; a stunning crystallised (and glittery) cathedral of stalagmites and stalactites, a huge variety of animal bones, and a bear skull perched on an altar indicating a ceremony or ritual. Herzog, due to the limited footage he was able to collect from the caves interior, extends his boundaries to the aerial captures of the nearby Pont d'Arc natural bridge, and an investigation into early miniature rock sculptures, primitive weapons and instruments. Herzog's sense of humour and those of his privileged sources shine through, making this experience an absolute delight.

The time span separating these creations is near-unfathomable. Some of the inscriptions are separated by thousands of years; bear scratches painted over by primitive Neanderthals for example. They are really quite breathtakingly beautiful (and accurate) representations of animals. Part of Herzog's analysis of this extraordinary find is to delve into the relationship between early Neanderthals and animals, and through the accounts of the specialists he interviews, we are asked to imagine the surrounding French region (and the rest of Europe) from this period. While the sights within the cave walls encourage a sense of wonder, the film challenges us further, asking us to consider this ancient period, in an attempt to understand what these early humans were thinking at the time, and how they were able to achieve what they did.

With the exception of Pixar animations and perhaps Avatar, I am yet to be really impressed by 3D. I think Herzog's resistance is justified, but I found it to be a very effective addition, especially in extenuating the contours of the cave and really bringing the incredible crystalline deposits to life. Herzog's decision was based on his desire to "capture the intentions of the painters" who incorporated the wall's subtle bulges and contours into their art.

Wondrous, intriguing and informative, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a triumph from one of cinemas most visionary filmmakers. There is so much more to this than a privileged journey into a now inaccessible Wonder of the World, but even if that was all it was, it would be more than enough. Herzog's film works as a philosophical study on how we interpret and internalize our perceptions of art, as a way to understand history, to evaluate humanness and the ability to 'create' something eternal. It's an incredible experience.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)


  1. I Love Herzog. Really looking forward to seeing this one.

  2. Great post - truly looking forward to this film and dcited that it's finally opening in Toronto in a few weeks!

  3. Guys, you will be mesmerised. The footage is incredible, but Herzog's keen interest takes the investigation beyond the caves, and questions just about everything.

  4. You're right about the amazing footage! First and only film I've seen in 3D and been satisfied with its function, it actually added to the film.

    Still, I have to admit I did fall asleep a couple of times : D And Herzog himself isn't everyone's cup of tea really.

  5. I agree. Apart from a couple of Pixar films, and curiously the recent Kung Fu Panda 2, this is the only film I have enjoyed in 3D. I love Herzog, but my head also slumped on one occasion :-p Still, I thought it was incredible.

  6. I must have something wrong with my eyes, because while most people say that this 3D is amazing, I don't think it's ever looked worse. It did add depths to the still shots of the caves, but the rest of the time it was blurry, with objects on the screen seeming distractingly out of proportion.

    Herzog definitely tries to take the audience "beyond" the caves, but I found his ramblings kind of nonsensical.

    I was genuinely interested in the subject matter, and ultimately I just wish someone OTHER than Herzog had made the film (and in regular 2D, thanks very much!)

  7. It's funny because when our screening started, our vision was blurry too. Then they fixed up the 3D settings (or whatever) and it looked great. I thought it was really effective inside the caves. I can understand why you felt like you did about his ramblings, but I thought they were amusing and interesting. With such limited footage allowed inside the caves, I thought his decision to look at weapons and instruments and speculate on the world these artists lived in, was just enough to justify the feature length. I would have been happy with 2D, but I was surprised by how good it looked :-p