Title: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Director: Werner Herzog
If many modern actors frequently locate a personal commercial sweet spot and then mine that seam for all it’s worth, a lot of directors tend to do the same thing. Only a few filmmakers robustly embrace the sort of eclecticism that marked the careers of their early- and mid-20th century counterparts. After all, they want to continue working, and in an ever-competitive creative arena part of the dance of getting studios and/or financiers to keep giving you lots of money to make films is to have an identifiable “brand” or identity, be it as a peddler of comedy, action or hand-wringing dramas. A notable exception to this line of thinking is Werner Herzog, whose intellectual curiosity and appetite for life drives him to follow up the award-winning nonfiction film Grizzly Man with something like the batshit-insane Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, a series of small operatic shorts, and then the crime drama My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Amassing almost five dozen combined long- and short-form credits behind the camera over the course of his incredible career, Herzog is at his best when, tangentially or directly, examining the complex relationship between man and animal, or humankind and the intractability of nature.
His latest film, the astounding documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, allows him the opportunity to do this. For over 20,000 years, Chauvet Cave, in France, was completely sealed off by a fallen rock structure, its football field-sized interior littered with the petrified remains of Ice Age mammals. In December, 1994, a group of three explorers stumbled across the perfectly preserved structure, sensing an extremely faint draft and loosening rubble to gain entrance. The fascinating cave paintings they discovered — dating back over 30,000 years, almost twice as old as previous finds — were so pristine that researchers at first doubted their authenticity, until they were later confirmed by carbon dating.
Maintaining the integrity of the cave and this astounding cultural discovery of course became of paramount importance to the French government, who strictly limited seasonal access, declared certain portions too unstable and unsafe to explore, and installed an exterior door to preserve the atmospheric conditions. Herzog’s engrossing film, then, provides a spellbinding public record of this space, unseen by human eyes for millennia. Filming only from narrow metal catwalks that span the cave, Herzog and his skeleton crew utilize 3-D to capture the artwork in all its contoured glory. The images and feelings they evoke are in and of themselves stirring, but the mystery and imaginative flights of fancy only deepen when it’s revealed that researchers are able to identify one artist individually, by the palm prints he left, and that several of the images were painted at least 5,000 years apart.
A companion piece of a sort with Herzog’s recent Encounters at the End of the World, in which he tripped to Antarctica, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is — at once quite simply, and also in a fashion most complicated — a movie about human imagination, desire and possibility. It is about all the things that are deepest inside of us, as a species. Herzog’s thick accent — which vaguely sounds like what one imagines Arnold Schwarzenegger doing a Christopher Walken impression might sound like, or perhaps vice versa — gives the movie’s narration a fine gloss of bemusement that nicely counterbalances his more ruminative, intellectual musings. Yet Herzog also has a canny knack for pulling back, eliciting wonderment through silences, and allowing an audience to trip headlong into the images, losing themselves in their primitive beauty.
In his work in the aforementioned documentaries Grizzly Man and Encounters, Herzog worked as a kind of conjurer of elemental dread and awe, delving into modern man’s relationship with his surroundings, and what he views as the unforgiving harshness of the world. This film, which ranks among his crowning achievements, shows that that same sense of questioning has existed for all of humankind, and is innately within us, not merely a product of modernity.
Written by: Brent Simon