Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog, 2010

The documentary subjects of Werner Herzog films are always unique. Whether it is the community of people living in Antarctica, a man obsessed with grizzly bears, or the flying of a one-of-a-kind vessel over Guyana, Herzog’s non-fiction subject matter seems specially associated to him; the focus is always Herzogian, if you will. Traveling to extremes, documenting curious individuals, and facing environments many have not encountered the likes of, the director’s latest adventure is no different.

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog and a small team of scientists and technicians explore the Chauvet Cave in France. The cave was discovered in the 1990s and found to contain perfectly preserved drawings from 30,000 years ago. Vivid and detailed drawings of horses, rhinoceroses, lions and others cover parts of the cave wall, looking like they could have been completed yesterday.

What is special about Cave of Forgotten Dreams, other than being able to see these drawings at all (Herzog was allowed incredible access to the cave. Most filming equipment could cause damage to the preservation of the drawings, so the documentary team had limited time and had to use special equipment to capture the imagery), is that it utilizes the currently popular 3D style. Personally, I find 3D films to be often quite distracting, headache-inducing, and diminishing in the overall colour of the picture. Yet the use of 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is actually quite wonderful. It creates an impressive feeling of depth within the cave and aids in visualizing the contours of the walls the scenes are drawn on.

As with most Herzog documentaries, the filmmaker plays a role in the narrative. His distinct voiceover plays throughout, describing his thoughts on the drawings and the people who may have created them thousands of years ago. His philosophical ramblings are a signature of his films (again, Herzogian), but in his previous works I have felt more at home with them. I find he strives to say things here that are intriguing but also a bit silly. At one point he asks a technician what the dreams of the cave drawers may have been, which is valid but also comes off as “trying too hard”; In a sense, I feel he is trying too hard to make this a Herzogian film. The connection he makes to alligators living in a sanctuary near the cave to the future of the cave itself also seems a bit haphazard and thrown in.

As always, though, a new Werner Herzog film is something to behold and discover. I admire the man for his guts and bravado, taking on and fighting to film the subject matter that many may believe is unfilmable. He is prolific beyond words, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams is another piece in his canon that is truly an original work of wonder.

3 1/2 out of 5


  1. Dave: I know Herzog is apt to go overboard with the philosophical rambings as he did in END OF THE WORLD, but at least here we have the ancient passage of time and a more mythological subtext to absorb them. As you note in this wonderful piece the 3D for once adds some perspective, and there is the advantage of one of the greatest subjects here in the history of man. I thought Herzog was aided by some splendid interviews, and there was atrue reverence when the camera crews went into the cave, even abiding by the understandably stringent regulations.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sam! I agree that the mythology surrounding the location helps Herzog's commentary find a proper place. I actually found End of the World's ramblings to be more effective, though. Since the subject matter was so scattered, it helped to connect everyone and everything. I recently watched Project Nim, so watch for a review. I'll keep you posted!