There is a moment about halfway through Werner Herzog’s stereoscopic documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams when we see the black and white, grainy footage of Fred Astaire dancing against his own shadows in the 1936 film Swing Time, before cutting back to the crystal-clear digital 3D image of the rugged cave walls, the film crew’s shadows spreading across its twisty surface. In this transition alone, cinema gains colour, definition, and an extra dimension, and we are struck at how far pictorial representation has come, not only this century, but since the dawn of Man.
This documentary explores the Cahuvet Cave in southern France, a sanctum that remained sealed for almost 30,000 years, until it was rediscovered in 1994. Within this cave, stretching along its walls, are the earliest known images made humans anywhere in the world, showing Mankind’s early explorations of form, colour, movement, and even the third dimension, as the original artists incorporated the contours of the rock into their paintings.
During the film’s production, which was subject to strict limitations by French authorities, Herzog was only allowed to take in two more crew members, for a very limited amount of time each day, for one week only. These restrictions resulted in a film with a certain guerrilla-documentary feel to it, humanising a technique – digital 3D – which so far has been mostly associated with blockbuster movie productions.
Indeed,Herzog’s decision to shoot a documentary about cave paintings in 3D might initially come across as odd, but watching the film the reasons for this choice become absolutely clear. The same way the ancestral artists used the shapes and twists of the rock walls, making these intrinsic to the paintings, Herzog presents us with a film that breaks away from the flatness of the silverscreen, with scenes which are visually mesmerizing and awe-inspiring.
There is a particular shot of the cave floor, littered with perfectly preserved prehistoric skulls and footprints, where you get very close to feeling, perhaps touching, the textures of the sand and bones. In fact, it is by exploring the caves and its history as a sensorial journey that Herzog pushes the documentary to its conceptual extremes. Having explored colour and shape, stillness and movement, 2D and 3D, he goes further to explore the senses of smell and sound.
Herzog also introduces us to a troupe of characters whose lives are connected to the cave in different ways, from the scientists who study the paintings, to a parfumeur who uses his sense of smell to search for new archaeological treasures in the vicinity of the caves. By showing us all the various characters and their quirky personality traits, their beliefs and dreams, ultimately by showing as humans rather than faceless scientists, Herzog invites us to imagine how complex the people who made these paintings must have been, rather than faceless cavemen. These are the forgotten dreams of the film’s title which Herzog ultimately sets out to explore, and we are lucky enough to be taken along with him.
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