Werner Herzog may be obsessed with filming extremes – personalities or natural phenomena – but he finds the grandeur in style to do them justice. In his 2007 entry, “Encounters at the End of the World,” his scope adjusts to capture both the Antarctic and unique characters living there. In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” his new nature doc that many may seem to be a companion piece, Herzog turns away from wide expanses to the secluded realm of Chauvet Cave in southern France. When reaching this even more removed locale, full of unique deposits and containing the earliest known cave paintings, the filmmaker’s cameras and small crew move about the restricted area in steady silence. When the cave was sealed off by fallen rock, it created a unique natural environment and secluded its human artifacts. Herzog seems just as intrigued by the remains as he is by the fact that they have been removed from civilization.
While the Antarctic laid unchartered until the early 19th century, its settlements have become communities, if unique in their own way. The Cave allows Herzog to reach prehistory and consider those who left the sublime drawings inside. He uses location to reveal character, in both his fiction and nonfiction works, and “Cave” is a vehicle for him to reach out to these early minds, framed by their visiting ground (humans never inhabited the cave, but went in for rituals). As works of art, these paintings sit at the beginning of our cultural history. As archaeological remains, they show the human mind’s initial growth, as it learned to reflect.
The concern over the cave’s relevance – and the ideas behind it – makes the film more rewarding than mere shots of nature. Learning that two overlapping cave drawings were made roughly 1,000 years apart lets him reflect on the freedom of humans without history. This moment seems to hold artistic relevance to Herzog, as if he sees pure creation beyond tradition and its anxieties. It also depicts the importance of science to the project, which Herzog works off like an mystical artist reading astronomical maps. The different drawings also reflect all of humankind’s quest to conceive, create, reflect upon the world – obviously a treat for a filmmaker who has those aims.
The 3-D format helps to capture the holy sensations one must feel when entering such place. Though after the camera looks through much of the caverns, the format loses its effect, especially when dimensioning during post is obvious: at some points, a character’s outline extends beyond him and to the walls in the background, distorting any attempts at focus. “Cave” also has the misfortune of opening along with “Born to Be Wild,” a nature doc about young members of the endangered species Orangutans and Elephants who have been orphaned and raised by humans, and eventually returned successfully to the wild. This film’s IMAX format turns the film into a virtual safari of countless visual planes. When experiencing this film – I don’t think the word “seeing” does it justice – we are compelled to enter the world of these animals, and let their experience become our own. Herzog’s 3-D style, though a worthy attempt for his perceptive sensibility, offers little more than what a traditional format would have.
Herzog isn’t one to shy away from such a dare (though he’s said he won’t use it again). He may be an obsessive, but we feel that he is discovering for all of us. This drive empowers his art beyond the strong visual statements he offers.