An Exquisite Excavation

Cave of Forgotten Dreams ★★★★
(USA/France, 90 min.)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog might be the strangest, craziest filmmaker known to man. He might also be the most deeply philosophical filmmaker this side of Terrence Malick. Herzog, however, brings together these two sides of his character most strongly in the realm of documentary. His Grizzly Man was one of the best films of 2005, for how provocatively he contemplated the nature of the human soul by examining footage of one tortured journeyman who lost his way in the Alaskan wilderness. Herzog explores the nature of humankind once again in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but this time via an exclusive anthropological excursion. 

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog and his crew takes us deep within the Chauvet caves of France. The recently discovered caves feature some of the most ancient artwork of prehistoric man, most of which has been preserved by years of enclosure due to a rockslide that sealed off the cave. In acknowledgement of the cave’s cultural importance, the French government granted Herzog a brief window in which he could tour the cave with a limited film crew and a handful of experts. The result is astounding.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is one of the rare examples of how documentary film offers us a chance to experience something we could never access otherwise. The footage of the immaculately preserved cave paintings is truly breathtaking, especially so considering that Herzog shot the film in 3-D. The added dimension makes Cave a whole other experience: one has the sense of standing in the cave and seeing these archaeological treasures in person. Watching the footage, it feels as if one could reach out and run one’s hand along each bump and crevice of the cave’s walls. Not only is it a beautiful sensorial experience, but the technique gives one a greater ability to appreciate the artwork.
While the astounding three-dimensional camerawork is surely an asset to the film, it might also be the film’s hindrance. Being so absorbed in the visual fancy of the footage, one cannot help but pay only secondary heed to the testimony of the passionate experts whom Herzog interviews. Particularly during the opening scenes when one first marvels at the footage, the voiceover passes by inconsequentially, leaving one less than fully informed before entering the cave. Nevertheless, Herzog allows one to comprehend the greatness of the caves through his continued privileging of the visual element – it would also be a shame to see any of this rare footage go to waste!

Herzog also delivers some of his uncannily thought-provoking narration in the final act of the film, and he turns the archaeological find back on contemporary man. As the camera observes a pair of mutated alligators frolicking in a tropical biosphere near the cave – alligators seem to be the director’s prized muse after Bad Lieutenant – and Herzog mediates upon whether the latest innovations in human technology are ultimately regressive in comparison to the celebrated markings in the caves, one can’t help but feel a little bit smaller in this world. One cannot help but feel gloriously enlightened as well. 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is currently playing in limited release.