Werner Herzog uses 3D for the first time in this film, but you can be certain that “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is no “Avatar.” Instead of James Cameron’s silly sci-fi what the iconoclastic German filmmakers offers is a hypnotic journey into real science via a visit to a cave in the remote French countryside that’s preserved for millennia the oldest known prehistoric wall paintings yet discovered.
Given permission in 2010 for a relatively brief photo shoot in the Chavet Cave, uncovered in 1994 and the focus of intense research since, Herzog and his team (headed by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger) follow the stringent rules designed to protect the site from contamination, clad in space-age suits and carefully following a carefully-built walkway through the caverns lugging their equipment along. In the process their lenses focus on the paintings, using the play of light and shade to marvelous effect to reveal their almost cinematic charcoal depictions of bears, rhinos, lions and horses, while periodically pausing to note the radiant stalactites and preserved remnants of ancient human and animal habitation, including skulls of cave bears and skeletal remains of other creatures. Ernst Reneijseger’s score adds to the sense of mystery and awe.
Meanwhile experts offer commentary on the finds and Herzog contributes his own observations, some delightfully wry but most meditating on what they tell us about what the singularity of human nature even over the course of twenty-five to thirty thousand years, and about the expressive impulse that seems an innate element of it—as well as the fragility of its products over time.
This being a Herzog film, of course, that isn’t all there is to it. In addition to providing a history lesson on the site’s discovery and a sensitive presentation of its contents, he interviews scientists who have been involved in investigating the cave, as well as art historians and “cave finders” who rely on various skills—including, in one instance, an acute sense of smell—to locate potential new sites. As always Herzog, an eccentric himself, has a way of affectionately drawing out his subjects’ eccentricities as they discuss their work in language that frequently takes a poetic or spiritual turn.
Simply as a visual experience, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is a haunting, evocative work that fits snugly into Herzog’s canon. But it’s also a typically thought-provoking piece that raises fundamental questions about the human condition and modern man’s links with, and differences from, his distant ancestors. It’s one of the few 3D picture worth seeing, and the rare film about art that can be considered a serious work of art itself.