At this point in Werner Herzog’s career, in which documentaries have mostly taken prominence over fictional features (at least until last year’s bizarro double feature of Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), one can approach his films with a reasonably accurate set of expectations. Recent Herzog has focused principally on the director’s distinct worldview and wry humor in association with examinations of the stranger corners of existence. While Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s excursion into ancient caves containing the earliest exambles of man’s artistic expression, certainly isn’t an exception, you might nevertheless strain to find another movie this year with a more ambitious intellectual end or a more unique subject, even if, in the company of heavyweights like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, it isn’t always his most bracing work.
Inspired by a Judith Thurman article in the New Yorker detailing the 30,000+-year-old artworks (hidden in caves in Southern France) the writer was not actually granted personal access to, Herzog and his crew gained exclusive rights to film the mysterious spaces through the French Ministry of Culture and set off to capture what Herzog terms as “the possible birth of the human soul.” Their time and resources are extremely strained: they’re only allowed in for a few hours at a time, they must keep to a 2 ft.-wide metal walkway so as not to disrupt the fragile interior, and many of the most intriguing pieces require some unpacking from ethnologists and archaeologists. As a result, a surprising amount of the film’s time is given over to actual experts, which is an interesting but less cinematic alternative to Herzog’s wild philosophical musings.
As a result of the need to convey the vast historic significance of these pieces, Cave is a good deal drier than the average Herzog doc, but it still finds room for some of the idiosyncratic helmer’s notorious flights of fancy and personal touches; in one scene, he can’t help but probe one of the scientists’ past work as a circus performer; in the endlessly amusing postscript, radioactive albino crocodiles serve as a signpost into the distant future. Moments like these, as well as the unusually probing nature of the works themselves, make for essential, if not always exctiing, viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of art as a means of distinguishing us from the rest of the food chain. If it doesn’t excite you, one of the other three projects Herzog has in the offing might do the trick. Doubtless he could have taught early man a few things about creating enduring art.