Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010): Germany

Reviewed by Byron Potau. Viewed at Mann’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, CA. as part of the 2010 AFI Film Festival.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog is never one to make it easy on himself. In his latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he received unprecedented special permission to film inside Chauvet Cave in France, a location which houses the world’s oldest known cave paintings, dating back as far as 30,000 years ago. With that permission came several restrictions limiting him on the lighting and equipment he used, the size of his crew (four including himself), the amount of time spent in the cave (four hours a day for six days), and to a narrow walkway inside the cave. As if this weren’t challenging enough, he had the audacity to shoot his film in 3D which, as it turns out, is the most successful use of 3D to date.

The bulk of the film takes place inside the cave as we marvel at the magnificently preserved images and wonder at their creation. The paintings primarily depict animals, often in motion, but there are a few surprises including one of the artist’s hand prints on several walls of the cave. Herzog includes a number of interviews outside the cave with a varied group, ranging from scientists studying the cave to a perfume developer trying to sniff out other caves. Their relevance is sometimes questionable and at times feels like filler.

Herzog’s strange and often far reaching narration is taken with a grain of salt. His observations may not be ours, but he is allowing us to share in this once in a lifetime opportunity, so I say we cut him a little slack.

While 3D remains an unwelcome gimmick, here it actually serves a purpose. When the 3D is working we feel much closer to the paintings and often get the sense we are inside the cave with Herzog and his crew. However, it is still prone to the same occasional blurry images that all 3D films are prone to. While it is not entirely successful, I can say for the first time that there is a reason to see this film in 3D, though I think it will still be a powerful viewing experience in 2D as well.

This film serves more as an educational piece than entertainment. Herzog has brought us closer to these paintings than we are ever likely to get, and the film’s importance cannot be denied.

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