DIR/WRI: Werner Herzog • PRO: Erik Nelson • DOP: Peter Zeitlinger • ED: Joe Bini, Maya Hawke • DES: Richard Holland CAST: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes
Despite being an essentially off kilter eccentric, Werner Herzog proves an ideal host and a wonderful guide to some of cinemas wilder shores. He has the ability to craft stylized fiction and to find in reality, even weirder stories and both aspects ring with his unmistakeable voice.
For his latest he plunges us, quite literally underground and into the caves of Chauvet in the Ardeche River of France. Here we are presented with the very first artistic renditions made by pre historic man. Similar cave systems have been spoiled by mans presence, the tourist industry nature of them have ruining some of the natural splendour with mould appearing due to the constant stream of visitors. To avoid this, very strict rules have been put in place for Chauvet. People are only allowed inside for a set amount of time and those that are usually consist of research or security staff. This is the first time outsiders have been permitted access and this required persistence on the part of Herzog as well as noble agreement to give the rights of the film to the French Government. This means it will become a part of the school syllabus and when put next to what usually constitutes educational film material the school children are in for a treat.
The key here is that the director never puts dry data ahead of natural wonder. His narration is filled with gnomic and poetic asides that while meandering at times, it keeps the film ticking along with its sheer humour and oddness. This visual representation of the past is perfect fodder for Herzog to muse lyrically on the role of art in mans development across the ages. The 3D he employs initially seemed like a gimmick beneath this auteur actually enhances the experience a hundred fold as shorn of fiction the 3D seems less cartoony and more helpful in really making you feel the damp and claustrophobia of the location. A lot of action usually only highlights the absurdity of the 3D device but here a man throwing a spear is about as much action as we’re given so the 3D doesn’t have to carry anything. It’s just another part of the process and all fears aside it genuinely works.
While the visual is catered for Herzog also attempts to tickle our other sense as far as he can. He hires a master perfumer to describe the scents found in the cave, a sequence which I found hilarious as I can’t think of any other film which would require a perfume creator on its staff. He knows what he’s doing and this along with other moments in the film are played for absurdist laughs. It’s only a shame that some revere Herzog too much to add the pinch of salt which is often needed to fully appreciate his work. While there’s no doubting the man’s intensity his humour and good nature should never be overlooked.
My one criticism is that at the beginning of the film I feared that his own enthusiasm for the project would never generate as much interest in me as a viewer. I sat there marvelling at the idea of it but worried I would not fully succumb to the reaction he wanted out of me. Such fears were assuaged as the piece went on; Werner’s sheer joy in the subject matter was earned as he dazzled us with illustrations from the past that have no doubt informed us as culture.
From speculation as to the lives lived there to a bizarre post script involving albino crocodiles, a gag Werner himself has oddly called ‘a crazy science fiction ending’ to an otherwise fairly straight documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a wonderful piece of whimsy showcasing our ancestors artistic leanings filtered through one of the greatest artists or our own time.
Emmet O’ Brien
IFCO website for details)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is released on 25th March 2011