Werner Herzog’s latest documentary masterpiece takes us to the South of France, and into the Chauvet Cave. Discovered in 1994, this cave is home to the oldest cave paintings found to date, dating as far back as 32,000 years. Few have been granted access to this cave and it is sealed shut so as to avoid disturbing the fragile climate inside. The film crew walk along a two-foot wide metal walkway that was installed to protect the cave from any damage. Their time inside the cave is strictly limited to only a few hours a day, and they used battery-powered torches that emit no heat.
What Cave of Forgotten Dreams reveals is not only some truly magnificent paintings of an array of extinct animals such as the mammoth, the woolly rhino and the cave bear, but some of their bones as well. We delve deep inside the cave and are exposed to its beauty, the stalactites and stalagmites, and the handprints of ancient man. The film also brilliantly shows us the historical context of the cave and its surrounding areas, with interviews from various archaeological experts.
Herzog’s choice to film Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D is completely reasonable given the content of the film. This reviewer was lucky enough to attend a Q&A with Herzog, and he explained “I knew I was probably the only one ever to be allowed to film in there, I knew it had to be 3D.” It’s main objective is to show the cave as you would experience it were you physically there, as Herzog and his crew did, and indeed as the prehistoric men did back in what Herzog likes to call the recesses of time. It really does allow the viewer to feel like they could reach out and touch what we are being shown without feeling gimmicky, as does the majority, if not all, of today’s overused 3D technology – exemplifying that there is a place in cinema for 3D so long as it is considered and justified. The contours in the cave were utilized by ancient man to demonstrate the movement of the animals painted on the wall, an idea Herzog describes in the film as pre-cinematic. The use of 3D allows Cave of Forgotten Dreams to successfully convey such small yet important details.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams ends on a rather interesting note with a ‘Postscript’ touching on the cave’s current situation. Herzog shows us that nearby is an energy plant beside which is a contained environment with tropical conditions in which crocodiles can thrive. He then proceeds to compare us, and our Homo sapien/Neanderthal ancestors, to these crocodiles and their albino offspring. It is vintage Herzog that here doesn’t feel completely necessary, and this philosophical pondering of his is much more justified in Grizzly Man, but still wraps up this feature nicely.