Making an intriguing use of 3D, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores a fascinating area of the world you or I will never be able to. Taking his cameras and a small team into the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in Southern France, Herzog joins scientists and researchers in exploring this vast cave system adorned with paintings from 30-odd thousand years ago.
The caves are, in the most literal sense, a wonder. The paintings are stunningly well preserved across 30 centuries, and the caves are littered with glittering stalactites and stalagmites and animal skeletons (some turning into stalagmites themselves). Discovered in the mid-90’s by a trio of explorers, the caves are now closed off from the public to preserve their amazing find. Only a small team of scientists, for a small window each year, is allowed into the caves to catalogue and explore. Herzog, in his very particular way of speaking*, narrates and provides some context to the find. He brings in some experts to talk about what the world may have been like at that time; Neanderthal was still walking the Earth, the sea level was substantially lower and the surrounding flora and fauna were vastly different. Herzog seems most concerned with how we can possibly hope to understand these people and their world across such a yawning chasm of time; an abyss as he continually calls it. Brought in to try and understand all this are scientists across different fields: archaeologists, paleontologists and art historians.
Though there are plenty of interviews, and a lot of Herzog, the real stars here are the paintings themselves. They are phenomenal works, painted on to the very cave walls themselves, with the unknown artist's using the curvature of the caves to accentuate and suggest movement. And this is when Herzog’s camera, and the accompanying 3D, works best. The 3D is able to suggest so much more to the paintings than seeing them in 2D would, it gives real depth to the cave and the world. It is less successful when used for interviews (or, I fell, relatively unnecessary. If Herzog had only used the 3D in the caves, I believe this would have served only to accentuate the wonder) and when applied to poorer quality images. As Herzog and his team had so little time in the caves, and could only use flat lighting, some footage is necessarily grainy and poor and it only further suffers by having 3D applied to it. But the main footage of the paintings; the footage that is beautifully shot despite the constraints; the footage that lovingly moves it away around the cave, giving us each painting in detail is magnificent. Bravo to cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger.
Some of Herzog's digressions are bizarre, seemingly unrelated tangents, talking as he does about albino alligators and what they would make of the paintings. But, as one of the rare non-narrative documentaries out there, this gives us a rare, once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at something ancient and wonderful. 30,000 years ago, as Herzog intones, is where we find "the beginnings of the human soul".
*even more disconcertingly for me, as I had only recently seen Captain America and Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull based his accent and cadence on Herzog.