In recent years, Werner Herzog's sly observations on the ways the universe in wondrously strange documentaries such as "Grizzly Man" and "Encounters at the End of the World" have taken on cult status apart from his existing place in the history of German cinema. Viral videos contain uncanny imitations of the filmmaker's distinct Bavarian accent reading every children's classic from "Where's Waldo?" to "Curious George." The reality is that Herzog could make the phonebook sound interesting, but he usually aims much higher than that. His latest non-fiction outing, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," proves that point again: It's an extraordinary production feat that transcends his personal whims while giving them room to shine.
"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" takes a fascinating 3-D journey into the inner sanctum of heretofore undocumented cave paintings in the south of France. Destined to delight Herzog fans for its offbeat ruminations on the evolution of creativity, the movie also derives ample philosophical weight from the sheer beauty and inherent mystery of the subject at hand. Guiding the audience with his typical voiceover narration, Herzog delves into "one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture," the etchings on the walls of the 1,300-foot Chauvet Cave, presumably home to the oldest paintings in the world. Owned by the French government and restricted to a handful of experts, the cave remains as mysterious as the history of its contents.
Herzog naturally plays up the enigma at hand with epic grandeur, occasionally overdoing it but usually hitting the mark. Introducing the setting with a majestic crane shot (particularly immersive in 3-D), his camera soars above the cave and surveys the desolate landscape. Unleashing cosmic observations about "the abyss of time" and the like, Herzog ventures into the darkness with his small team, carefully illuminating the 35,000-year-old artwork within. The profoundly magical aura of the footage ranges from charcoal etchings of animals in motion ("almost like a form of proto-cinema") to hints of attempts at self-portraiture ("as if the human soul was awakened within them").
Aside from the Herzogian idiosyncrasies, however, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" contains the musings of real experts. Archaeologists analyze the ancient painters' creative use of the cave's spatial definition to tell stories and create illusions of motion. The personalities involved in the cave study receive less overt scrutiny than the eccentric Antarctica residents in "Encounters at the End of the World," where Herzog expressed as much interest in the researchers as their work. Still, he urges the cave experts to reach beyond academic conclusions and look at the big picture, and they happily indulge themselves. "I'm a scientist," says one, "but I'm a human, too."
Having thoroughly explored the paintings to the extent that he's allowed to film them, Herzog launches on a less immediately thrilling tangent to explore the possible lifestyles of the inhabitants. Muting the awe factor, this segment downgrades some of the movie's intrinsic appeal. But just when Herzog appears to veer too far off-topic, he makes an instant comeback by showing one of his experts playing the Star Spangled Banner on a primitive flute. As usual, human progress gets the sublimely absurd Herzogian treatment, with modern and primordial sights and sounds becoming whole. Nothing can top utterly zany inspiration of the postscript, which somehow involves a nuclear power plant and radioactive albino crocodiles. Ironically, it turns out the 3-D effects comprise the sole aspect of the movie where Herzog issues restraint.
And yet, given the unprecedented nature of the project, Herzog's filmmaking efforts are tightly controlled and closer to conventions of the form than his other recent non-fiction ventures. He sticks to the practical goal of exposing the art, and concludes by dedicating the movie to the cave's discoverers. Apparently, plans are underway to open a replica of the cave for the general public, but Herzog beats them to the punch by putting this natural museum on the big screen.
criticWIRE grade: A-
This review was originally published during indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" opens this Friday, April 29 through IFC Films.