‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is dreamlike, fascinating and unmistakably Herzogian
Directed by Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s hypnotic documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams begins with a long dolly down a row of farmland. As the camera reaches the end of the row it cranes up, revealing the vast caves of Chauvet sprawling out below.
Herzog’s film not only explores the famous caves in southern France that house the oldest known paintings, but also continues his exploration of the human experience. With this opening shot Herzog lays clear his metaphor: the accessible open area of the farmland just obscuring the mysterious closed area of the cave is as to the shrouded mysteries of human evolution, brimming just below our everyday interaction.
A combination of musically motivated cave sequences, Herzog’s signature philosophical voiceover, and interviews with a motley crew of those involved with the cave (a former circus juggler, a perfumer, an “experimental” explorer), the documentary is less National Geographic than SyFy Channel.
Like his previous documentaries, Grizzly Man, Lessons in Darkness, The Wheel of Time, Herzog is less interested in the obvious point of interest – the paintings themselves in this case – as he is in the people surrounding it. Alongside one of the scientists exploring the cave Herzog becomes fascinated with the idea of one of the ancient painters. Through scientific process and via his camera, Herzog tracks the movement of the man, putting the viewer in his position. The effect is a spellbinding trek through the caves where past and present are merged.
Not unlike the famous penguin sequence in Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog ends Cave with a postscript focusing on a pair of albino alligators. The images are close-up and eerie. Herzog’s own voiceover in this final section brings everything to its conclusion and relates these “mutant animals” back to the cave dwellers, implying an odd, almost supernatural circle of life.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is dreamlike, fascinating and unmistakably Herzogian. It continues the director’s search for the hidden things in life, whether those things be just below a farm, or back in an unknown and unreachable past.
– Neal Dhand