Werner Herzog’s 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a bewildering film. While watching the images that Herzog and his team captured of the Chauvet cave unfold before you, you have to ask: Could any filmmaker other than Herzog have made this film? The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is resoundingly no. Herzog is truly the only filmmaker with enough fortitude to make a documentary like Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It is a wondrous exploration of what confounds people the most: human existence.
Chauvet Cave in southern France holds the oldest known cave paintings believed to be around 32,000 years old. Under the strict rules established by the French ministry of culture, Herzog and his team documented the paintings and the cave’s researchers. The documentary gives an unprecedented look at these gorgeous paintings and allows Herzog to be his intellectual best.
I did not see Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D. (Not by choice.) I wonder if the 3D really adds anything to the film. The paintings and Herzog’s presentation of them are so marvelously insightful and provoking that I can’t imagine how 3D adds much to the documentary. (Although if I get the opportunity, I will see it in 3D, the way Herzog intended for this movie to be seen.)
Film gives these paintings a true breath of life, connecting them to our present-day lives. Images like Fred Astaire’s infamous shadow dance, which Herzog incorporates into the film as part of a discussion of shadow, gains a new meaning. (The director discusses this scene at length in a recent NPR interview.)
The Chauvet paintings themselves are so mysterious and fascinating. It becomes clear throughout the film that the researchers will never find any true answers about them. All that can be made are informed assumptions about what may have been.