He’s 68 years old and narrates his documentaries in an unmistakably raspy whisper, his heavy German accent adding an air of mystery to everything he’s describing.And yet Werner Herzog has such obvious enthusiasm for the discoveries he depicts in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it’s as if you’re listening to a giddy little kid who learned the coolest thing at school today and can’t wait to tell you all about it. That’s just one of the many fascinating contradictions that mark the latest film from Herzog, who previously brought us tales of bears ( Grizzly Man) and penguins ( Encounters at the End of the World). Here, he prowls around a French cave containing spectacular prehistoric artwork that was closed off to the outside world more than 20,000 years ago because of a rock face collapse. Once scientists found the Chauvet Cave in 1994 and began investigating inside, they came across vivid and pristine images of horses, bears, rhinos and other creatures that they estimate are more than 30,000 years old – almost twice as old as previous finds. The drawings were so crisp and clean, the researchers doubted their authenticity at first. Now they’re calling this one of the most important cultural finds ever – and not only did Herzog gain unprecedented access, he shot it all in 3-D. And not only is the 3-D not gimmicky, it actually enhances the viewing experience, making these images seem more tactile and immediate. Cave of Forgotten Dreams immerses us in a space that’s at once enormous and darkly cramped, full of shimmering crystal formations and scattered cave bear skulls. The 3-D heightens not just the sense of texture but also of movement; because the paintings were often rendered on curved surfaces, with overlapping animal legs to suggest galloping, the lighting and camerawork make them appear to be in motion – or as Herzog himself phrases it, it’s “almost a form of proto cinema.” It’s awesome, and it makes you feel incredibly small and insignificant by comparison, and yet Herzog also conveys a sense of humanity, which makes it impossible not to feel connected to these people from many thousands of years ago. Herzog didn’t have much time or space to capture all this, and he had to work with a stripped-down camera crew that was forced to remain on narrow, metal catwalks to ensure the sanctity of the cave. And yet the finished product, with its shadows and its string-heavy score, creates a feeling not just of wonder but also of danger and even a bit of fear. Cave of Forgotten Dreams does grow a bit repetitive though, and probably could have been more effective if it had been a half-hour shorter. Once you’ve marveled at all the artwork and appreciated its significance, it’s like: OK, we get it. But then, Herzog ends the film with still more weird and wondrous imagery – which, hopefully, will be the inspiration for his next documentary.
Movie InfoDirector: Werner Herzog.
Screenwriters: Werner Herzog, Judith Thurman.
Producers: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes.
An IFG release. Running time: 90 minutes. No objectionable material. Playing in Miami-Dade only: South Beach, Sunset. Opens at Coral Gables Arts Cinema May 13.