Only Werner Herzog could get me excited about a movie about cave paintings. The thought of one of our greatest living filmmakers descending into the depths to examine the secrets of prehistoric man is wonderful to me. And, as usual, Herzog did not disappoint. He crafted a film in which paintings came alive, in which the weird world of calcified remains and sparkling geological wonders, buried beneath the surface, awakens into our own. ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ is both riveting and elegiac, and creates a sense of wonder coupled with a sense of just how small our current world is in comparison with that of our ancestors.
Herzog manages a great deal with a limited camera crew, limited lighting and limited mobility within the cave. The images he produces are spectacular. The paintings themselves — of cave bears, cave lions, furry rhinos, wooly mammoths, wild horses, and a host of other animals, many now extinct — are brilliantly shaded, complex drawings that exhibit the artistry of what we like to call primitive humanity. The cave sparkles under Herzog’s lighting as he wanders on a narrow metal track, pointing out calcified skulls of cave bears, and the markings of animals and human beings alike. One image that he can only describe and never show is that of a footprint of an eight-year old boy next to the pawprint of a wolf. The images that evoke movement — a stampede of horses, two rhinos fighting — are linked to cinema, and Herzog dexterously draws out the correlation between some of the earliest forms of art with the most modern one.
There are moments when the film drags. Herzog, for some inexplicable reason, seems to have an obsession with New Age choral music that detracts from the majesty of what he’s trying to present. Rather than allowing the sounds of the cave to speak for themselves, he introduces a somewhat clunky heartbeat that recurs throughout the film and hammers home the point that the cave has a life of its own. Some of the analysis of the archaeologists takes on a ‘well, we know nothing about this, so we’re going to speculate wildly’ tone, which might have been toned by a bit more scientific/historical discussion rather than what it feels like, which is rampant speculation.
There’s also plenty of Herzogian weirdness to go around. A master perfumer wanders the forest trying to ‘sniff out’ caves. One of the archaeologists attempts to throw a spear. Another reveals that he was a circus performer before turning to archaeology. And, finally, there are those albino crocodiles that take up perhaps one of the strangest postscripts in the history of documentaries. But I won’t completely spoil that one for you.
I wish I could have seen the film as it was meant to be seen, in 3D (never thought I’d say THAT), but even in 2D, it is spectacular. Herzog remains a master of his craft, a deft commentator on the beauty and futility of human endeavor. He hasn’t quite mellowed in his old age, but he has achieved a new spirituality that is both welcome and, at times, a little weird.