Directed by Werner Herzog
Runtime 90min - Rated G
4 Stars (out of 4)
Due to a plague sweeping through the valley, my day job temporarily became a night job. I've regularly worked overnights in the past, but these days I've grown accustomed to sleeping during those hours. Luckily, my job provides internet access. I began browsing Netflix for something that would keep me from falling asleep at the cash register when I stumbled across "Cave of Forgotten Dreams". I love Werner Herzog documentaries and have been itching to see it for a while. It seems strange to choose a documentary about cave paintings as your cinematic coffee, but it worked. I've been in this situation several times and I've found that intellectual involvement keeps me alert better than explosions and car chases.
Herzog's documentaries are so unique. His subjects have included Antarctica, the death penalty, a Christian minister, a man who lived with bears and cave paintings. Despite the diversity of topics, all of his documentaries could be viewed as one long movie. That's because his true subjects are the people. Most filmmakers go to Antarctica and come back with footage of penguins and icebergs. Herzog goes to Antarctica and focuses primarily on the people who live in a tiny frozen village. This village houses scientists, filmmakers and labourers that never felt at home at any other latitude.
Like the films that preceded it, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" also focuses on people. We meet a man who walks through the wilderness sniffing rocks. That's right, he sniffs rocks. Traditionally, caves are found by feeling for airflow coming from cliff-faces. That's how Chauvet Cave was found. The sniffing man hopes to accomplish this feat by smelling around the rocks for anything that doesn't match the natural wilderness aromas. It would be hard for a normal man, but this man is a master perfume-maker whose proboscis can distinguish much more than the common nose. The perfumer exemplifies the kind of characters you meet in a Werner Herzog documentary.
|Representation of an extinct species of cave lion.|
I mistakenly assumed that paintings by cavemen would be primitive at best. It turns out that early man was much more artistic than Geico commercials would have you believe. The cavemen painted buffalo, cave lions, horses and other animals with an eye for detail I didn't expect. Their art didn't just depict the animals, but the relationships between them. They would paint things like a male cave lion courting a female. There was no mistaking this because the gender of the animals was, uh, obvious.
They also depicted motion in their drawings. An animal with 8 legs was a portrayal of running. Other larger paintings featured animals moving in herds. Some artists would use a dissipating outline to show movement.
The lone human figure is that of a nude woman painted onto a pointy rock hanging from the cave's ceiling. Herzog wasn't allowed to view this initially because he would have been disturbing untouched stalagmites by walking to the back-side of the rock. He circumvented this problem by attaching his camera to a stick and stretching it out over the ground.
The fact that this film got made is pretty remarkable. No other film crews have been allowed into Chauvet Cave. Herzog had to make conditional agreements with the scientists before they let him film. There was to be no more than four people in his crew. Much of the footage is done with one guy holding a light and the other with a handheld camera. Even if they were allowed to take large amounts of equipment, they would have had to carry it down a several-stories high ladder. The original cave opening had been closed off for 25,000 years and there was only one way in and out. I think the challenging conditions probably made the project even more alluring for Herzog.
This film was filmed in 3D. Unfortunately, 3D gives me terrible migraines. The version I watched was in glorious 2D. However, I support the use of stereoscopic imagery in this case. The proportions and textures of the paintings would be especially evident when viewed in the third dimension. If given the choice, I'd suggest trying the 3D version of this film. This is not a suggestion that I'd normally make, but I believe that Herzog would use the medium wisely.
In addition to the paintings, the cave is filled with animal bones. Bears, wolves, lions, horses and other animals had decayed and then been covered in calcification. The same minerals that cover the bones have perfectly preserved the paintings. The artwork is so well-preserved that it was initially accused of being a hoax.
Herzog ends the film with a bizarre post-script. Twenty miles away from Chauvet cave is a nuclear power station. The water that is used to cool this station is diverted to an artifically created tropical habitat. Crocodiles are densely populated in this ever-growing experiment. A croc-filled swamp in the mountains of France is a perfect opportunity to deliver some of his existential philosophy and he seizes it promptly. He ponders if this man-made climate would ever reach Chauvet Cave and how the crocodiles might perceive the paintings.
"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is a great example of Herzog's style and prowess as a documentarian. This would be a great introduction to Herzog for those who might be interested in his work. I found the entire 90 minutes captivating. Pretty impressive considering I had been awake for 24 hours straight. Herzog narrates his own documentaries with his surprisingly soothing German accent. It's that personal touch that makes all his films so special. While exceptional, this one is no exception.
Watch it streaming now at: