Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the new documentary from Werner Herzog, following closely on from his powerful Grizzly Man and his beautiful Encounters at the End of the World. This time, Herzog has been granted exclusive access to film the recently uncovered cave paintings in the Chauvet cave, which have been estimated to be over 32,000 years old. With a crew of only four people including Herzog himself, the film was shot in 3-D.
In typically Herzogian fashion, the documentary is made up of odd interviews, philosophical ruminations in voiceover and imagery of natural beauty. The cave paintings are frequently held onscreen, allowing the viewer the time to see them properly. Some paintings feature horses with eight legs in an attempt to display movement much like Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase while others give an insight into the myths of the people who did the paintings. Meanwhile, Herzog’s wonders whether these paintings were considered art when they were first drawn or whether they were used for rituals, or whether they were simply used for target practise. Most exciting, however, is the pervasive feeling that the cameras are disturbing the cave dwellers, that they are still there and are hiding in the shadows of the caves, waiting for the cameras to leave before they can get back to work. The sight of a cowering caveman is expected, despite the obvious impossibility.
Back above ground, Herzog interviews the archaeologists who are studying the caves as well as less orthodox experts, such as an expert perfumer who muses on what the cave may have smelt off and an “experimental archaeologist” who plays the Star Spangled Banner on a replica whistle. With a range of opinions and thoughts, Herzog constructs an interesting art history documentary. However, the human’s compulsion to create art is not of interest to him.
Instead, Herzog’s questions are much more philosophical and, to be honest, a little hard to take. Though Herzog never falls into dewy-eyed sentimentality, his use of a heartbeat in the soundtrack and a score full of operatic, religious music is unconvincing. An epilogue involving albino crocodiles and a voiceover wondering what they would make of the paintings was, by Herzog’s own admission, a tangential move into the realm of science fiction. However, it can only feel irrelevant. What makes Grizzly Man work so well is that Herzog found the perfect subject through which to present his own ideas. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, his segues into his own rumination are notably forced and particularly unconvincing. In the end, the prevailing feeling is that everyone is making a little too much of these caves.
Ultimately, you watch Cave of Forgotten Dreams wanting to be fascinated, but the film only manages to achieve this once or twice. It is an interesting film but it is also an overblown film. A case in point is when Herzog talks of the discovery of the tracks of a little boy and a wolf side by side. Herzog wonders whether the wolf was stalking the boy or if their tracks wer made thousands of years apart. This is all very intruiging until Herzog adds that it is possible that they walked side by side as allies, something that is a little too much like Disney than Herzog. An interesting film and one well worth seeing, but one to be taken with a pinch of salt.