Werner Herzog is a visionary. Whether it be dragging a ship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo or travelling to the furthest reaches of our planet to document its idiosyncratic oddballs in Encounters at The End of The World, Herzog persistently pushes the limits of filmmaking in search of an ‘aesthetic truth’.
In contrast to many of his previous films however – operating under his gloriously pessimistic mantra that the world is just ‘chaos, hostility and murder’ – his latest, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (supposedly the first arthouse film to be exhibited in 3D), exists more as a sombre ode to a moment almost lost in history.
The film exhibits the awe-inspiring cave paintings that dwell within the Chauvet Caves in France, a 1300 foot long grotto which was stumbled upon by three explorers in 1994. A cave in had created a kind of time capsule, perfectly preserving its mysterious contents for some 32,000 years, making these paintings the oldest known pieces of art in the world. And they are quite something. Herzog’s camera lingers on them at length, picking out the intricacy of a lion’s facial expression and the kineticism of a herd of horses. But, as with most of Herzog’s documentaries, this isn’t the whole story.
The German director’s commentary is infused with an existential longing to know what the painters were like, if they dreamt at night and what hopes they had. He views the remarkable drawings as the beginning of the human soul, as beautifully crafted signatures by those that time forgot. In one evocative passage, Herzog considers the footprints of a young boy and wolf positioned next to one another: “Was the wolf tracking the boy? Did they walk together as friends? Or were their footprints made thousands of years apart? We’ll never know.”
Although not as omnipresent as in films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Woyzek, or Grizzly Man, Cave also features Herzog’s penchant to film social misfits. So, an amateur explorer/expert perfumer provides tips on how to ‘sniff out’ a cave, and an all-to-eager-to-please scientist demonstrates how prehistoric man hunted (the only moment of obvious ‘poke-D’ in the film). But Herzog doesn’t judge these extroverts. They are but another constituent to the telling of this utterly engrossing story.
It truly is a mesmerising journey that, for once, is aided by 3D, creating a depth that draws the viewer into the cave with the film crew. This is Herzog working at the top of his game. And there’s even time at the end for Werner to provide us with a philosophical meditation on some albino crocodiles.