Six years ago, Werner Herzog released arguably the greatest documentary of the 21st Century (so far), Grizzly Man. Using Timothy Treadwell’s tragic story as a conduit for Herzog’s own recurring themes made it an electrifying real-world culmination of his most acclaimed works. Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God being the most obvious examples of men whose passions clash with the force of nature itself, Herzog’s subjects – including Treadwell – are often a refraction of his own persona, both in awe of and terrified by the natural world.
It is through his latest film that he decides make the leap of projecting himself onto a location: the Chauvet caves of Southern France, one of the most protected natural sites in the world. Herzog had to get special permission to film there and faced heavy restrictions during production. It is his first – and according to him, last – 3D film, as he wanted to capture the immersive experience of the caves. The site is also home to advanced, perfectly preserved cave paintings that, amazingly, are some of the oldest in human history. It’s a fascinating place, but one that unfortunately leads to a few problems in Herzog’s approach.
Part of the problem is the subject itself. By using the caves and paintings as a prism for his own ego, he ends up philosophically empty-handed. One would think that the location is perfect to explore his pet subjects: a descent into darkness, the overwhelming power of the earth, obsessive explorers trying to know the unknowable. But Chauvet and the work of Paleolithic artists are not precise, concrete objects of inquiry like Treadwell or Lope de Aguirre was. “What constitutes humanness?” “Did cave artists weep in the night?” ponders Herzog in voiceover, and while I don’t doubt that he is genuinely moved by these questions, he should have asked himself if any of these questions are interesting to the audience, especially since there is no satisfying arc to them at the end. For someone who loves to let everyone know what he’s thinking in all of his documentaries, he sure has a tough time finding anything to say in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Even his normal eccentricities are subdued here. With the exception of a few odd (and frankly unnecessary) sequences, the bizarre is mostly MIA in this film.
It’s not impossible to make a compelling documentary out of something as arcane as the caves. But to do that, a film needs someone willing to dig through their elusiveness to come up with clear ideas. For some reason Herzog can’t – or won’t – do that in this film. There’s far too much genuflection and internal monologues about esoteric subjects to provide any real insight.
What the film lacks in content, it more than makes up for in visual splendor. It’s easy to see how Herzog could be so enamored with the caves, as they are a wonder to behold. Credit should definitely go to whoever managed to outright invent the various equipment needed to film in that location responsibly. Even more surprising was how much I enjoyed the 3D effects. Seeing the montage of paintings along the cave walls, using the 3D technology to envelop them around the screen, is absolutely beautiful. It’s also, thankfully, non-invasive. I can only recall one scene where Herzog imposes other footage onto the paintings themselves.
But the splendor of the caves alone is not quite enough for an unqualified recommendation from me. Herzog’s point of view is mismatched for this type of documentary, especially since it clocks in at 90 minutes. For those who are interested in a small glimpse of early human history, or just want to see dazzling footage of a natural wonder, Cave of Forgotten Dreams certainly provides that and is mostly worth your time and money. But anyone hoping for a truly great documentary like Grizzly Man might want to temper their expectations.