4 May
Werner Herzog investigates man's greatest anthropological find

Madman Mundt and Miss Madeleine break review Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams 3D.

Madman Mundt
Ok, so let’s put this out there right away: Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a 3D documentary by celebrated German filmmaker Werner Herzog about the Cave of Chauvet, a large cavern in Southern France only discovered in 1994, notable for the pristine condition of its pictographs — the oldest known in human history. That’s all you need to know to figure out whether you’d enjoy this 90-minute film. If your idea of entertainment is plopping down on the couch for a fun Katherine Heigl rom-com, this is probably not your fair. In fact, this is probably not your fair unless you have a sweet spot for anthropology, archaeology or documentaries in general… or you just really like spelunking.

The cave itself is truly remarkable, an astonishingly preserved time capsule flush with large, detailed cave drawings dating back 32,000 years. The pictographs and state of the cave are in such solid condition because its opening was shut off in a landslide many eons ago, preserving everything inside in an immaculate state. Instantly the French scientific community — hell, the global scientific community — realized what had been discovered and shut down access to the Cave of Chauvet like Fort Knox. It is now protected by a steel vault door, with 2 guards permanently on duty, and only scientists are allowed to enter. For the record, Herzog is the only filmmaker who’s ever been allowed to film inside, a point he makes sure to mention several times. So with his famously diligent style, Herzog decides to document the cave with high-tech 3D technology.

Now some have complained about the use of 3D, but I actually thought this was the best aspect of the film. I’ve never seen it applied to a documentary before, and the complexity and visual wealth of the setting — full of calcified stalactites and stalagmites, floors littered with the bones and skulls of lions, bears, wolves, reindeer, aurochs, etc — is rendered with a sense of depth never seen before. And it seems to work especially well with the cave drawings themselves; with the 3D, you feel like you’re moving your head around these ancient paintings, taking in every detail as they glisten in the moisture of the cave. I dug that.

Hit the Jump to continue reading He Said/She Said: Cave Of Forgotten Dreams 3D Film Review…

“I just wonder if someone else could’ve done a better job exploring the world of early man without shoe-horning so much of their personality into it…”

Miss Madeleine
I also dug it, and that’s coming from a 3D hater. Who would have thought that Paleolithic paintings and 3D glasses would marry together so well, but oddly enough they were like soul mates destined to meet in a forgotten cave locked off from the world for thousands of years. How romantic. In saying that this documentary is not for everyone, you’re either going to love it or you will think Paleolithic is a new low carb diet and wonder why everyone is speaking French. I was the former and although it did take me awhile to adjust to Herzog’s very personal approach to documentary making I think it worked for the subject matter, and I started to feel a connection toward my fur-wearing ancestors that I have never experienced before. I wasn’t so interested in the stalactites and stalagmites as they all look pretty much the same, it was the cave art that utterly mesmerized me. This glimpse at early man’s artistic inclinations proves that some people are just born to create art, and the desire to feed one’s imagination will send them into a deep dark cave for no other reason than a need to express themselves. It’s fascinating that the caves were not used for sleeping or eating but rather like an art gallery. Out of the dozens of paintings a series of four horse heads made my jaw drop to the floor. They appeared to have been painted yesterday; the colors are vibrant and crisp and the detail is overwhelming. The horses’ mouths gape open as they appear to be moving across the cave wall in a stampede. The depiction shows the skill of the artist and also the understanding of the concept of fluidity and how to express that in a 2D medium. Mindblowing.

Herzog’s narration was very engaging — he has a distinctive yet comforting accent like a National Geographic narrator. I did however find myself giggling at his odd segways, namely a moment in the cave where he asks the team of scientist and filmmakers to be completely quiet as they listen to the “sounds of the cave”. And as he stares directly down the lens he says, “Maybe we will hear the sound of our own heartbeats,” and moments later we are treated to audio of an electronic heart beat… I’ll take my history lesson without the cheese please, Sir.

Madman Mundt
Ahh yeah, totally. Werner goes a little off the deep end sometimes. The nearly 70-year old director is almost as well known for his epic temper and authoritarian style as his films, so maybe it’s expected that he’ll insert a lot of Herzog into his docs. Which for me is kind of distracting. I’d say a weakness of the movie is his penchant to really self-indulge with baroque, tangential musings. Like that heartbeat line you mentioned — sometimes it sounds like Old Werner’s had one too many tokes, and he just allows himself to wax philosophical like an annoying stoner at a house party talking about aliens. Except he never self-edits these oftentimes (pseudo-) spiritual and even hyperbolic ramblings… much like annoying stoner David Icke fans. At the end of the film he goes off on a long postscript about a nearby nuclear plant whose warmed waters from the cooling towers have been recycled into a closed-environment, Biodome-style structure. And in this artificial sealed tropical jungle alligators thrive — many who are “mutant albinos” (isn’t “mutant albino” redundant?). Herzog then goes on to ponder if the mutant albino alligators went to the Cave of Chauvet, would they parallel us modern day humans trying to understand the ancient cave paintings. Huh? As confusing as that was to read, it was just as difficult to follow in the film. How exactly would these albino alligators even get to the Cave — they’re locked up, as is the Cave. Prior to this post-script, there was no mention of this nuclear plant or the biodome or the alligators, so the metaphor just seems stretched at best. People laughed at the screening, so maybe it’s German Ironic Humor or something, but I just find it distracting.

Good old Werner trying to hear his heartbeat…

Miss Madeleine
But I wonder if it could be distracting in a good way? I have been thinking a lot about the doc last night and today so he must have done something right. I did feel it was a little long especially as we were dealing with very little scientific data compared with other documentaries of this kind, and mainly focusing on subjectivity which became very repetitive in the 90 minutes. Now to the reptiles: being Australian I know a lot about these creatures and I can tell you Mundt that they were Crocodiles not Alligators, but you’re American so I will forgive you. I will not forgive Herzog’s however as that was the worst case of clutching at straws I have ever witnessed. Did he just get off on the idea of albinos that much that he couldn’t edit that out?

With a discovery of this kind— and the very rare opportunity the director was given to film it — it’s also interesting to think about what information we gained from this documentary. We are now aware of the existence of these wondrous works of art, we know the time-frame for their creation and we know the fragility of their environment. But none of this is the work of Werner Herzog; all these things have been created without him and would exist without this documentary. So what did he bring to the table exactly? Albino Crocodiles and electronic heartbeats? To be fair to Herzog I did really enjoy the doc, so I am not bashing the guy, I just wonder if someone else could have done a better job exploring the world of early man without shoe-horning so much of his or her personality into it. Unless another filmmaker is given the opportunity, which by the sounds of it is very unlikely, we will never know.

Madman Mundt
Crocodiles, alligators, dingos, koala bears… really all the same, Aussie. We’re in America dammit, we don’t let the vermin from down under get in the way of a good rant. But I have to agree with your last note — Herzog was given access to an amazing cultural discovery, and with the technology that he had at his disposal (mostly the 3D cameras and aerial camera work), he did an amazing job of capturing it. I would definitely recommend this movie to anyone who’s into anthro or any science, really. His flaws were making it about 15 minutes too long, and inserting his personality way too heavily into a film that’s supposedly about artists that lived 30,000 years ago. But most egregiously making absurd statements and illusory connections. At the beginning of the film, he actually calls the Cave of Chauvet the most important human cultural discovery ever. Ever. Now, I’m thinking things like the Rosetta Stone might be a litte more important in the understanding of mankind than even the best preserved cave drawing. But that’s Herzog: I guess you just have to let him ramble like a drunk uncle…

No Responses to “He Said/She Said: Cave Of Forgotten Dreams 3D Film Review”

  1. Alex Terr says:

    I’ve been meaning to see this movie, but ive been tentative for the reason that most of my friends have been saying the 3D ruined it. Its interesting to hear that you guys think that its a good enhancer, I guess I cant really make the judgment myself unless I go see it!

  2. Kevin Bjorke says:

    Chauvet is far more important than the Rosetta stone. The Rosetta stone merely simplified translation os languages we already knew existed (we can also read Mayan now, with no Rosetta stone). Chauvet reveals — in a very immediate way — a rich human culture that pre-dates any known. That’s a much bigger deal — and for an artist, a profound spiritual truth.

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