No one makes documentaries like Werner Herzog and Cave of Forgotten Dreams has plenty of Herzog injected into it to satisfy the discerning fan as well as a fascinating subject matter. In 1994 explorer Jean-Marie Chauvet discovered caves in the south of France that had been sealed for thousands of years and inside were perfectly preserved beautiful cave drawings. Immediately the French government ensured no public access was allowed and only limited access was granted to specialist archaeologists and scientists. The drawings are examples of some of the earliest ever discovered human artistic expressions, estimated to have been created a staggering 32,000 years ago. Our trusty filmmaker somehow managed to persuade the government to grant him and a small film crew access into the cave in order to show the world these precious pieces of history.
The film opens with dramatic operatic music and we see a landscape of bare vines. A tracking shot sweeps over the vineyard and continues all the way to the cave. Herzog quickly establishes the location and the subject matter by rewarding his audience immediately with close ups of the beautiful Palaeolithic paintings. The animals are surprisingly well drawn with a high degree of accuracy and the camera lingers on them long enough for us to scrutinise the artefacts that we would never have a chance of seeing in real life, but this is certainly the next best thing. We leave the cave and are given information from various scientists.
We are informed of facts through the narration by Herzog himself, his strange accent inviting us into this otherworldliness. The camera goes along with the archaeologists as they guide us into the cave and the camera suddenly flips upside down to show a different perspective, this is no ordinary documentary. Due to the size and fragility of the caves a crew of only four is allowed and there is no space for people to be out of shot but this certainly does not deter from the utter majesty of the cave. The textures and formations look like they have been man-made, it is difficult to believe the sparkling deposits we see are natural. The cave itself is phenomenal and Herzog allows time for us to digest this magnificent environment.
The paintings can be seen as early examples of animation with repeated images of animals drawn in different positions to create the illusion of movement. We see a bison painted with 8 legs which also creates a sense of movement, Herzog considers these drawings a kind of “proto-cinema”, the origins of cinema. The utilisation of the texture and shape of the rock to add to the drawings is impressive and I felt truly privileged to see such wonders.
So how does Herzog manage to successfully keep our attention for the full 90 minutes? Well, he finds weird and wonderful characters to flesh things out with of course. From the experimental archaeologist who used to be part of the circus to the strange old man, credited as a master perfumer, who ‘roams the landscape’ looking and smelling for more caves, there are an abundance of people that offer us an insight into the period these drawings are from and the cave itself. Herzog also provides us with a digital map of the whole cave which was mapped by lasers and the camera sweeps though this 3D reconstruction giving another perspective yet again.
The combination of interviews, facts, interpretations and the drawings themselves all ensure this is a riveting film from the start through to the very end. This is very much Herzog’s perspective but it is also the perspective of the many other knowledgeable specialists who have come into contact with the cave or similar environments. At one point Herzog even relocates to South Western Germany in order to find out more about an ivory flute from the same period. We are guided by experts throughout this whole experience and the documentary has a wealth of facts about the period to absorb, this is not just about the cave drawings it is about so much more.
There are some suitably surreal Herzogian moments, particularly the inclusion of a group of mutant albino crocodiles in a nearby tropical biosphere who Herzog muses about and wonders what they would make of the paintings. He films the reptiles in extreme close up and it feels a fitting ending to a Herzog documentary. Sensibly Herzog leaves us with just the drawings, original atmospheric music by Ernst Reijseger and a panning high quality camera so we can explore the drawings once again after learning about them and having them put into context for us.
I was quite disappointed not to catch this film in 3D but having now watched the 2D DVD I don’t feel I missed out on anything. This documentary has so many layers, from the striking charcoal drawings to Herzog’s existential and philosophical musings, with lashings of facts and a brilliant use of music. Herzog’s unique character and vision ensure this is a film I will definitely revisit. There are apparently plans to build a tourist replica of the caves nearby the originals for people to experience but this documentary alone does a great job of showing us a significant piece of prehistoric life and opening our eyes to another time and another place.
The extras included are a fascinating in depth Q & A with Werner Herzog and the theatrical trailer.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is available for you to explore on DVD and 3D Blu-ray on 17th October 2011.
Director: Werner Herzog
Writers: Werner Herzog, Judith Thurman
Stars: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier and Jean Clottes
Runtime: approx. 90 mins
Country: Canada, USA, France, Germany, UK