Working on a film with Werner Herzog must involve equal parts patience, eye rolling and awe. I'd liken it to spending the day with a favorite grandparent as they tell stories you've heard dozens of times, but which they tell with such detail and earnestness that you can't help but be impressed. Bonus points if your grandparent speaks methodically with a creepy German accent like Herzog's.
Here's a man who somehow convinced the French minister of culture to allow him and a crew of three to film inside what is perhaps the most important and protected cave in the world. It's an ancient but fragile art museum of sorts that's home to the oldest known human paintings. But the eccentric 69-year-old filmmaker pretty much guarantees some odd and awkward moments, as when he melodramatically asks everyone (including a team of scientists) for "silence please ... we're going to listen to the cave, and perhaps we can hear our own heartbeats."
The film also includes one of the strangest epilogues in documentary history, involving a nuclear power plant, albino alligators and Herzog waxing philosophical about humanity. But we'll get back to that later.
For now let's toss aside directorial eccentricities and focus on what makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams such a pleasure, because that list is long. Chauvet Cave, located in a remote valley in southern France, has to be considered one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the last 25 years, if not longer. And you've probably never heard of it. The cave was sealed off by a landslide more than 20,000 years ago, preserving a grand Paleolithic cave-painting site the likes of which exists nowhere else on Earth. It was discovered in 1994 by three explorers. Inside the 1,300-foot-long cave are hundreds of paintings that date back 32,000 years—twice as old as any previously discovered cave art. The entrance was quickly padlocked, and the surrounding trails are patrolled by two guards.
Not surprisingly, the unprecedented access afforded to Herzog and his team comes with a few strings, and part of the fun here is watching them work under such constraints. So small is the crew that Herzog handles much of the lighting equipment himself. The filmmakers aren't permitted to touch anything or to leave the two-foot-wide walkway that winds through the cave. Because of toxic gases, they are limited to four hours of filming per day over a two-week span. Somehow, Herzog was able to rig up 3D cameras for the production, though sadly the Wilma is not 3D, friendly. This is a shame because Cave of Forgotten Dreams is probably the first film since Avatar that deserves an additional dimension.
The paintings are the stars here, and they are magnificent. So crisp and clear are the renderings that scientists initially wondered if they were forgeries—at least until they discovered the millennia-old crystals growing over them. Amazingly precise and vivid depictions of just about every large post-Ice Age mammal are present here, including horses, bison, lions, antelope and even rhinos. Some of the paintings are drawn over the scratch marks of the now-extinct cave bear, an animal whose bones and footprints are also present in the cave. Perhaps most incredibly, as Herzog discovers through interviews with archeologists, some of the paintings were drawn 5,000 years after the first humans took to the walls with charcoal. Chauvet Cave was a popular art studio.
Herzog gets downright silly at the end with his postscript. It's a shame no one had the balls to tell the cinematic professor eminence that it's not a good idea to imply that a bunch of albino crocodiles living in "radioactive water" near a French nuclear power plant is a metaphor for our species—especially when it turns out they're actually imported alligators from Florida and the water is fine.
No matter. Give Herzog credit for letting the drawings tell the story. Yes, there are obvious, scriptedly moments like the beating-hearts scene where Herzog can't help himself, but generally the focus remains where it should be, and long periods of silence allow us to slowly acclimate to a mesmerizing and mysterious environment. When the director remarks, "These are the images of long-forgotten dreams," I can't help but agree. There is nothing else on earth like them.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams continues at the Wilma.