Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Director Werner Herzog

***originally written 17 April 2011***

I’ve got to play catch-up with Werner Herzog. Clearly I’ve been missing a trick. My first encounter came last year with his gonzo remake/reimagining of Bad Lieutenant starring Nicolas Cage. And now he’s back in documentary territory with Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. In 3D too.

This was my initiation into Herzog’s style of documentary filmmaking, and it proved suitably off kilter. For all intents and purposes a straight-forward, straight-faced depiction of some incredible cave-paintings discovered in the mid-nineties by accident, perfectly preserved and rarely seen. However, Herzog’s quixotic sensibilities add a unique tint to proceedings. Thus we are also confronted with strange perfumists sniffing rock formations, an archaeologist confessing to a career as a circus performer and a curious postscript about irradiated albino crocodiles (the relevance of which still feels deliciously out of my grasp). It’s curiously satisfying to know that perhaps only Herzog truly knows what he is attempting to convey. These touches make Cave Of Forgotten Dreams not only memorable, but endearingly personal.

The cave itself is located in southern France, halfway up a rockface, kept behind a strangely formal-looking vault door, the intent of which is security and preservation. As we are shown in it feels like entering the strangest edition of Grand Designs, or something out of Being John Malkovich. Heading inside the mind of Herzog. You can also tangibly sense the reverence of the cave. This is a special, almost holy place to the people studying it, and it’s not hard to feel privileged to be joining them. Because of the fragility of the cave, and the insistence on preserving everything just so, the camera crew are restricted to walkways that are even shaped around the stalagmites that jut up like so many shark’s teeth. This is clearly a difficult environment to shoot in. So Herzog decides to shoot in 3D. And it’s a good job he did.

I’ve not been convinced by 3D. It worked for Avatar. It really worked. But since then it has seemed like a dalliance. Ineffective in the likes of Toy Story 3 and Tron Legacy. If anything, it works against a film, reminding the audience that they’re watching a movie and keeping them at a remove from the action. Here however, it works wonders. As Herzog and his small crew move their torches around the drawings on the curved cave walls, the 3D brings them out toward you. The light and shadow playing and moving, almost creating the illusion that the images are shifting. This is going to sound hokey as hell, and no doubt pretty dumb as well – but it’s almost like being there. Probably the best use of the technology yet.

I was dubious that the subject matter would justify a feature length film, and there are times when Herzog stumbles off track. Conversations about primitive weaponry lead to a couple of bizarre and funny moments, but also feel like unnecessary diversions. A similar side-piece about pottery likewise feels like padding. They also break the film away from the cave, providing different visual textures, sure, but also taking you out of the otherworldly environment which Herzog has made feel so precious. I think I’d have liked to stay in there even longer for a more sustained claustrophobia. Shots of bearded scientists collating data in a nearby sports utility felt like being pulled away from the good stuff.

Nevertheless the film is remarkable, fascinating, and well worth seeking out on the big screen. As for me, I shall be looking to see more of Herzog’s work. I look forward to further versions of the world through his unique eye.

8 of 10

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