Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, Werner Herzog)

The Chauvet Cave is nestled in a cliff by the Ardèche in the south of France. Discovered in 1994, it was found to contain some of the earliest examples of human art — up to 34,000 years old — in the form of breathtaking, dramatic cave paintings of horses, bison and (in one case) a woman, to say nothing of fossils and tracks of extinct animals. Scientifically, historically, emotionally, it’s among the most significant discoveries of the last twenty years. And Werner Herzog put a camera in it.

This he did after much negotiation and on many conditions from the French government; such things is outlined with some detail in the film that results, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a rather muddily philosophical examination of the Chauvet paintings shot, in a bit of a cinematic stunt, in digital 3D. Herzog had to shoot with a tiny crew and ensure, of course, that nothing was disturbed — sites like this are so delicate that a false move can have major long-term consequences. The Chauvet isn’t open to the public and never will be, so Herzog’s camera is a valuable opportunity for the world to see this stunning presentation of human origins and legacy up close and with depth. Using various enterprising rigs, Herzog reaches parts of the cave that have never been examined in such detail by a large general audience.

Cave runs 89 minutes and it appears that Herzog’s initial bright idea of bringing the paintings to 3D life isn’t enough to cover up a feature-length film. In fact, there is a sense of desperation as it becomes clearer that he doesn’t seem to know how to stretch this into a “movie.” Yet this is not necessarily so much because of an absence of good material — most of us could look at these things for hours — as because he doesn’t really trust the inherent value of the work he’s shooting, or the quite remarkable story of its discovery by a small group of speleologists. Herzog seems to see a kinship with the tiny trio of professionals and his own tiny film crew, and this is only one of his many tiresome and specious analogies. But the beautiful, unadorned montage near the end of the film that finally examines the paintings in detail is a sumptuous, musical experience and could have been the entirety of the film, which probably should have been a short.

But here we are, and Herzog certainly doesn’t disappoint with his eccentric reasoning of why this picture needs to be a feature film, to be 3D (well, that makes sense, although it translates perfectly well on television), and why he needs to use his hour and a half to make bizarre connections beyond the natural ones about our artistic, social, humanistic history that would seem to be enough. He fills quite a lot of time with such matters as the filmmakers finding a parking space and, somewhat more amusingly, the ins and outs of how they will reach the cave and what parts they will be able to walk through (some portions of it are still off limits because of both safety and preservation, even for the curators).

Depressingly, less of the film is filled with such goofiness than it is with magical-thinking mumbo jumbo courtesy of Herzog himself, who serves as a melodramatic narrator focused heavily on “dreams” and “heartbeats.” It’s all a bit silly — Chauvet doesn’t need such moronic embellishment. Worse, Herzog is one of the worst interviewers imaginable, and that’s when he’s spending time with legitimate experts. It’s another matter when he’s hanging out with a perfumer who believes he can interpret the realities of the cave by smelling it, or engaging in 3D gimmick fun with some ancient weapon demonstrations. Then he ends his narrative by announcing (falsely) that there are some “mutant crocodiles” down the street and wondering what they’d think of his film. No, really.

But of course, the real problem is that the response we feel to these early evidences of humanity as we know it should be enough to move us without a bunch of tiresome spiritualism and speculative woo-woo on top of it. It’s an excessive application of modern thinking to something finally unknowable, but I’m not even sure Herzog doesn’t know that — for all his fearlessness, he just isn’t quite willing to thrust us into the sensory non-narrative experience this demands. Luckily, the caves still tell us plenty, and even in full-on condescending mode Herzog can’t ruin or cheapen them.

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