Cinema Reviews

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is an awe-inspiring 3D exploration of the ancient Chauvet caves in France.

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is an awe-inspiring 3D exploration of the ancient Chauvet cave in France.

Almost working as a companion piece to Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which explored the vastness exteriors of the South Pole, this film takes an interior look at a truly remarkable place.

The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France was discovered in 1994 and contains paintings and markings dating back thousands of years to the Paleolithic era.

Enter Herzog, a filmmaker with a knack of unearthing the poetic in nature, who became interested in filming inside the carefully preserved caves, which the public are not allowed to enter.

Unlike his documentaries about eccentric individuals (e.g. Grizzly Man or The White Diamond), this is more about a place and the dream-like feelings which it inspires.

Filled with stalactites, pawprints and the bones of extinct animals, the interior of the caves are hypnotic, filled with charcoal drawings which suggest Paleolithic people were practising an early form of visual entertainment, or ‘proto-cinema’ as Herzog calls it.

After receiving special permission from the French government to film inside – albeit with some heavy restrictions – the German director and his small crew used specially modified 3D cameras and lights to capture the extraordinary images inside.

This adds another layer to the project as it becomes about the actual filming, as well as what the images captured might mean, and the crew and their equipment become part of the action, giving the whole thing a vérité feel.

We see Herzog and regular DP Peter Zeitlinger navigate the metal walkways inside the caves and some of the artwork is fascinating, providing glimpses of another era.

As experts talk about what’s inside, this is intercut with footage of academics talking about their findings.

The German auteur brings his probing curiosity to the interviews, discovering that a scientist used to be a circus juggler and also finding some gentle comedy in how hunting with spears might have worked thousands of years ago.

Using graphics and computer models, the film also details the relative flurry of activity that has taken place since the mid-90s as scientists have mapped the dimensions of the cave and the nature of the rock inside.

What prevents the film from being just another nature programme is Herzog’s unique presence, as his distinctive voice and working methods lend a quirky gravity to proceedings.

He seems equally absorbed by the challenges of filming outside and inside the caves, at one point using a prototype remote controlled drone (operated by Jonathan Watts) to capture shots of the local landscape.

For such a veteran director, the use of 3D cameras might seem a radical departure but it is far removed from the CGI spectacle of mainstream features using the format and enhances the claustrophobic beauty of the caves.

When the film ventures outside, the effect is less dramatic although a scene where someone literally pokes a spear towards the camera may suggest Herzog is having a laugh at Hollywood’s current adoption of the format (he has since stated that he will never use 3D again).

The atmosphere is enhanced considerably by Ernst Reijseger‘s score, which fuses strings and choral singing to compelling effect and helps create the sense of awe the film reaches for.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is more restrained than Herzog’s previous documentaries, even though he still crams in a segment involving a radioactive albino crocodile, but the awe-inspiring subject matter and the maverick sensibilities of the director make for a perfect match.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens in the UK on March 25th

> Official site
> More reviews and links about Cave of Forgotten Dreams at MUBi
> Find out more about Werner Herzog and the Chauvet Cave at Wikipedia
> Find out what UK cinemas are showing the film at Picturehouse and Find Any Film
> Facebook group
> Details of a live Q&A with Herzog (via satellite) on March 22nd