When cable channels started broadcasting nature documentaries in high-definition, owners of plasma TVs discovered that not only were they seeing the Pacific, the Sahara, and the Antarctic in a whole new way, they were discovering things they never wanted to know about scientists’ stray facial hairs. The storied German filmmaker Werner Herzog takes this to the next level with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his new 3D documentary about—wait for it—cave paintings.
To be fair, these aren’t just any cave paintings—these are the cave paintings, from the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France. Buried in a prehistoric landslide and discovered only in 1994, the cave contains paintings over 30,000 years old, predating by thousands of years the earliest previously known paintings. The Chauvet paintings are so old that their creators lived on a European continent largely covered in glaciers, a continent they shared with Neanderthals and woolly mammoths. The paintings were made over thousands of years’ time, which means that to the most recent painters, the first paintings in the cave were artifacts as ancient as King Tut’s sandals are to us. And then 30,000 more years went by.
Access to the cave is tightly restricted, and though Herzog’s apocalyptic declaration that his shoot may represent the last time anyone is ever permitted to film in the cave seems a little far-fetched, it’s certainly the case that random video from the cave is not going to be popping up on YouTube any time soon, so Cave of Forgotten Dreams does represent cave paintings as they’ve never been seen before. If that doesn’t get your blood pumping, Cave of Forgotten Dreams may not be the movie for you—but Herzog is an unusual and inventive documentarian (his brilliant doc Grizzly Man was my favorite film of the last decade), and if you think you might conceivably enjoy a documentary about cave paintings, you’ll probably dig this one.
Throughout his career Herzog has been concerned with the themes of the quest, of man against nature, and of filmmaking as a crusade. Going down into a cave isn’t quite the same as pushing a boat over a hill, but the deadly seriousness with which Herzog takes his task makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams more compelling than the average nature doc. One of Herzog’s subtlest and most compelling tricks as a documentarian is to give his talking heads just a little more space than other filmmakers would, to let their eccentricities creep in around the edges of the frame. For example, it’s not strictly relevant to the story to watch a French anthropologist play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a replica of a prehistoric flute, but Herzog is not going to deny us that pleasure.
For those interested in 3D filmmaking, this movie may represent an interesting turning point. While the 3D photography is relevant to Herzog’s assertion that appreciating the texture and depth of the cave walls is essential to understanding the paintings as artworks, this may be the least showy 3D movie I’ve ever seen. The lions and horses aren’t made to get up off the walls and run CGI circles around us; there are relatively few sweeping landscape shots; nothing shoots out and scares us. Actually, the scariest 3D effect might be the way the boring typography of the opening and closing credits jumps out and gets in your face with three-foot-tall Times New Roman.
A growing convention in film festival listings separates documentary from fiction films by referring to the latter as “narrative” movies—which irritates me, as an editor and a filmgoer, because it implies that documentaries don’t have narratives. Herzog gives Cave of Forgotten Dreams a complete plot arc, complete with a surreal surprise ending. It’s a good story, told as only Herzog could (or would) tell it.