Cave of Forgotten Dreams: movie review

In 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams,' Werner Herzog takes us on an extraordinary journey to see Earth's first artists and ponder the origins of what it means to be human.

Werner Herzog leads his film crew inside a cave discovered in 1994, the walls of which are decorated with paintings that are 32,000 years old – the earliest found to date. He used 3-D cameras and lights that emitted no heat.

The documentaries of the great German director Werner Herzog are mystifyingly meditative. He transforms what he sees – whether it be Peruvian jungles or Antarctica – into his own intensely personal amphitheater. His way of seeing is as singular and as impossible to mistake as Picasso's.

Although best known for such dramatic films as "Nosferatu" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (one of the greatest and most influential movies of all time), a large portion of Herzog's career has been taken up with documentaries. More than just about any other filmmaker, he has expanded the definition of what a documentary can be – how it can resemble a philosophical discourse, a poem, an anthropological study, a dream.

His latest documentary, appropriately titled "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," is one of his best. It could serve as the apotheosis of his artistry. Inspired by an article in The New Yorker by Judith Thurman, it is about nothing less than the origins of what it means to be human, or to be an artist – which, for Herzog, represents the same thing.

This twinning of humanness and artistic creation is embodied in the charcoal cave drawings that were discovered in 1994 in Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in southern France. Through the extraordinary permission of the French Ministry of Culture, Herzog was able to secure permission to film inside the caves, the only filmmaker ever granted such a request.

The drawings are more than 32,000 years old, much older than the famous Lascaux cave paintings. Thanks to an avalanche that sealed off the cave's entrance during the Ice Age, many of the paintings are almost perfectly preserved. The walls are covered with roiling sketches of horses, bears, bison, and rhinos, many species of which are now extinct. The floor of the cave, which was used as a place of hibernation for animals and a shelter for humans, is littered with their bones.

Over a period of six days in the spring of 2010, for only four hours each day, Herzog and his three-man camera crew, suspended on walkways two feet wide, traversed the cave's cathedral-like 1,300-foot-long interior, with its milk-white spires of stalactites and stalagmites. The filmmakers wielded portable 3-D cameras and lights emitting no heat.

Herzog's decision to utilize 3-D represents one of the rare cinematic justifications for this process amid the current craze. The striations and curvatures of the cave drawings, as they play out across the walls, are uniquely brought to life by 3-D. They take on a muscularity, a tactility. In one instance, we see the drawing of an eight-legged beast, probably a horse, and the animal appears to be running. Herzog calls this "proto-cinema" – the first known rendition of a moving image – and his ecstatic response seems entirely appropriate.

The deep-down spookiness of this enterprise suits Herzog's famously metaphysical mind-set. (Were these paintings created as ritual or as representation or, perhaps, for some other purpose we can't comprehend?) That mind-set can sometimes be a bit much – his "Grizzly Man," I think, could have benefited from a more real-world perspective on its dangerously daffy protagonist – but in this film nothing seems misplaced.

Even when Herzog goes off on one of his nutty tangents, like the sequence featuring albino crocodiles from the waters of a nearby nuclear plant, we can sit back and smile: There goes Werner again. You were maybe expecting something from the Discovery Channel? Great artists have a perfect right to their eccentricities.

Herzog's heavily accented deadpan narration, which he doesn't so much speak as intone, is, as always in his documentaries, integral to the experience (and easy to parody). He wonders what the crocs would make of the cave paintings. He questions whether the side-by-side tracks of a little boy and a wolf were made thousands of years apart or if the wolf was stalking the boy, or, perhaps, maybe the boy and the wolf were friends?

He asks a professional "smell expert" to offer her olfactory comments on the cave. He has an anthropologist demonstrate how an ancient artist might have thrown a spear. "His efforts may not look very convincing," Herzog notes dryly of the man's wobbly toss.

One of the cave artists, whom scientists estimate to have been around six feet tall, with a crooked finger, left his marker – a red handprint – throughout the caves. When we see such wonders, a rapturous kinship is struck. These paintings speak to us; they both compress and elongate time. In "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," Herzog is reaching for ways to comprehend what he imagines to be the emblems of the birth of the modern soul. Grade: A (Rated G.)

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