Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Werner Herzog’s meditation on the cave art which was discovered when the Chauvet cave in France was first unearthed in 1994, a sight that is seen by a privileged few human eyes. Meditation is an apt word for it also, for while these examples of cave art are the best preserved, some of the oldest and most detailed we’ve found there’s still plenty about them shrouded in mystery which scientists of varying disciplines are trying to piece together.
This lack of certainty with regards to the subject leads this to be a documentary of a more poetic nature, which makes Werner Herzog the perfect director to tackle the subject. Herzog has shown in his documentary work not only the ability to write illuminating narration and deliver it exceedingly well but also to make almost any subject fascinating, render it in an interesting fashion and find an emotional angle in which to attack it.
The attack in this instance is somewhat deterred by some production restraints that are placed on the film by the curator of the cave. While perhaps there’s too much time dedicated to discussing them they do have bearing on the story in two manners: firstly, it’s a Herzog documentary and whether you like it or not he will be involved in it. He’s not one to distance himself from his subject. Second, it does illustrate the efforts that researchers are taking to maintain the pristine conditions of the cave so they can continue to study it without any more degradation than necessary.
Despite lighting limitations there are many wonderful images captured within the cave and as any true artist would Herzog uses the limitations to his advantage. One prime example which you see frequently is the camera hardly moves, the light pans over to it; the light level changes, shadows emerge and then fade to black. It makes the transition more natural than it would be with ideal lighting conditions and its exploited well.
Heightening the poetry and emotion of the piece beyond what it should realistically be expected to achieve is the music. The scoring of this film echoes a timelessness and a message being conveyed across the aeons that is difficult to communicate in words.
While the film isn’t as tightly edited as it could be there are sequences within in it that are like pieces of music themselves with crescendos and then silences and then the extended montage of just cave images that they were able to shoot closer since research for the year had been concluded.
The interviews are also pivotal, thankfully they weren’t too numerous if anything at times an intercession was lacking but the positive that came from them was that they were revealing attempts to elucidate the impossible.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams owes much of its success and some its struggles to its subject matter. The subject matter couldn’t be more interesting: it’s a fascinating examination of unanswerable mysteries of a bygone era and the dawn of man. However, much is unexplained, which allows your imagination to work and that’s good but leaves you in search of some closure. Regardless, Herzog does add a nice button connecting the cave to the modern day in a very creative way and it’s a film well worth seeing.