Film Review: ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’


The millennia old receives the 3D treatment in Werner Herzog’s truly extraordinary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011). Having travelled to some of the furthest corners of the Earth – filming on every continent, and producing some unquestionably definitive works of cinema (Fitzcarraldo [1982], Aguirre: The Wrath of God [1972]) – Werner Herzog is not only the perfect director to bring one of the most important discoveries of human culture to the screen, but also the perfect man.

As pure a filmmaker as they come, often having described himself more as a craftsman than an artist, Herzog’s latest release, capturing charting new territory in authenticity, does little to disprove such a claim. 

The film sees the adventurer come director, granted access to France’s Chauvet Cave; home to the oldest works of art in human discovery. Made hyper-real via what is arguably the first necessary use of the 3D, one is immediately struck by the illusion of tactility afforded to these ancient cave paintings.

Physicality – having been of prevalent interest to Herzog since the beginning of his long and fruitful career – has never before achieved such a tangible quality to his subject. Indeed, the contours and textures of the cave and the markings of the paintings themselves appear as the first images in 3D cinema in which the much cliched notion of ‘it’s like I can touch it’ is validated.

However, despite the beauty of his film and the astonishing effect he achieves, Herzog is keen to address that 3D is only of interest to him for this film specifically. Following the screening in a Q&A, he stated: “My next film is not in 3D, nor will the next five be, nor were the sixty before, and given the opportunity to go back and film them in 3D, I wouldn’t.”

For the most part the film consistsof long examining shots of the cave and its paintings depicting all manner of prehistoric animals, but Herzog is ever keen to delve deeper: interviewing numerous experts he yields a variety of the existential, poetic and delightfully comedic responses that typify the auteur’s extensive canon.

As one might also expect, his voice-over makes many acute observations and speculations about our own humanity. The film’s slightly tenuous end section, which goes beyond the location of the cave, delivers a most bizarre yet brilliant solliloquy on what it is that links us to those ancient brothers and sisters who lived some thirty-thousand years ago; asserting that it is our constant fascination with dreams and fantasies that link us across the abyss of time.

While Herzog’s philosophizingmay not be as valid or necessary here as it perhaps has been in a number of prior works such as Grizzly Man (2005) – in which his hyperbole made for a far richer film – Cave of Forgotten Dreams is unmatched in its enchantment. Allowing us access to such magnificent imagery and adequately demonstrating that there is a legitimate place in cinema for 3D, which is more likely to be used in bringing us breathtakingly detailed and life-like portraits of our own reality than it is in producing the fantasy worlds that, as a species, we have dreamt up almost since our earliest moments.

As a self-proclaimed, but hardly refutable, good soldier of cinema on a lifelong quest to produce a more adequate grammar of images, Herzog has certainly emerged victorious on this occasion. A true master craftsman: let us trust that he will continue to fight the good fight for films to come.

Matt Migliorini