When Werner Herzog revealed his next project would be shot in 3D, the announcement caused some consternation among his fan base; it appeared an uncharacteristically ‘mainstream‘ direction to be heading, the format still desperately trying to shrug off suspicions regarding value for money and the debris from James Cameron’s atrocious Avatar.
So far, the biggest problem concerning 3D has been placing it within an appropriate context, the majority of films that have adopted it often visibly struggling to negotiate means and ways to produce successively more impressive visual tricks, a reliance which inevitably sidelines narrative in preference of spectacle. It is, therefore, to Werner Herzog’s credit that he dare incorporate such a sophisticated tool for such simple ends, many scenes composed of static takes and flat close-ups, reuniting content, form and technique into a reasonably happy harmony.
The Bavarian’s struggles have somewhat downsized over the last 3 decades: in years gone by he was lugging entire ships over mountains, now he heads in the opposite direction, specially modifying his equipment to crawl into the narrow spaces of the Chauvet caves, whose discovery in 1994 unearthed the earliest human ‘art’ dating back 32,000 years. If these treasures were not sufficiently astonishing in themselves, also strewn across the cave’s floor were scattered remains of the now extinct cave bear, several other species and fully formed human footprints, perfectly preserved by the unique conditions which enabled their survival. Interspersed with footage of the cave are interviews with several members of the team currently excavating the site (one a former circus performer), several of whom are the typically eccentric type commonplace in Herzog films. Particular highlights among these are a parfumier attempting to find new caves with only his bulbous nose and an experimental archaeologist who plays Star Spangled Banner on a Paleolithic flute.
The existence of Cave of Forgotten Dreams is justified alone by its subject and the inherent restrictions which prevent the public from seeing them with their own eyes: no tourist shall ever be permitted into the Chauvet caves, a lesson cruelly learnt from the Lascaux caves where decades of human breath has almost rendered it destroyed or at least redundant for research. For many, this will provide the greatest intrigue, the uniqueness of the experience a tremendous pulling factor. Whether or not Herzog’s booming narration and roster of devices (religious chanting, meditations on dreaming, left of field characters) will enthral either existing fans or newcomers is less certain, reoccurring themes beginning to edge towards pastiche and cliché.
In the ‘Post-Script’ to COFD, we’re taken to a mysterious bio-sphere located a few miles from the Chauvet caves, a vast greenhouse structure which houses thousands of tropical plants and a growing population of crocodiles (actually alligators and not in any way mutant as suggested), among them some albinos. It is a surreal sequence in which two albino alligators meet their ‘doppelgangers’, Herzog questioning whether we are in fact now the ‘crocodiles looking back’. Arguably the film’s weakest moment, despite the beautiful photography, it is a rather pointless and philosophically vacuous segment which just about manages to relate to the rest of the film, albeit without illuminating anything significant.
COFD still counts as a great triumph, even if the body of the work was completed 32,000 years ago. Together with Herzog’s trademark philosophical enquiries, and world vision, he has moulded a fascinating documentary which, like every accomplished film of his, leaves you waiting to see his next with relish.