"The Cave of Forgotten Dreams", Werner Herzog's ("Grizzly Man", "Rescue Dawn") new documentary is a fascinating look at a very rarely seen archaeological find.
Herzog was given rare access to a recently discovered cave in France. The Chauvet Cave, so named after one of the people who discovered it, contains some of the oldest, most pristine cave drawings ever found. In an attempt to preserve the find for future study and, hopefully, further discovery, access to the site has been severely limited. But Herzog was allowed to bring in a skeleton crew to film the drawings and share them with the public. The director made the decision to use a 3-D camera and entered the caves via a narrow passageway.
Once inside, the cameras begin to roam over the craggy interior, capturing all of the stalagtites and stalagmites. Then, they capture a drawing. And another. And another. And each is more stunning than the last. What you immediately realize is that this is an instance when the use of a 3-D camera was not only a good decision but a vital decision. The artists used the contour of the rock formations to help bring their drawings to life. The bumps and crevasses in the rocks help to give the paintings movement. And the 3-D camera captures this for us, making us feel as though we are standing directly in front of the drawing. You almost want to reach out to touch the drawings.
"Forgotten Dreams" is an amazing work for this reason, and almost this reason alone. And it is wholly worth the price of admission. But the film provides very little other information simply because they don't really have any other information yet.
The beginning of the film is all about what they did to prepare after they got permission to enter. There is a little information about the discovery of the cave and the people responsible, but not much. Then, when he enters the cave, he explains that due to tight circumstances, his crew will inevitably show up in some of the footage.
But as his camera begins to roam over the walls, and the drawings come alive, you can't help but be mesmerized.
Then, in an effort to give us more background, he talks to a few people who try to fill in the blanks. But there just isn't enough to tell about these people yet, they are still researching, trying to figure out who they were, so some of the information presented in the film, in particular, some of the interviews, seems extraneous. They do have information about how the cave was preserved so well and this gives us an idea of what happened so long ago.
Herzog talks to a few people and they give what information they have. One demonstrates a flute he made, in an effort to recreate an artifact they found. The flute is 'like' some the people at the cave 'may' have used. It’s a thin, tenuous connection, but it makes the film interesting.
Then he returns to the caves and his camera spends time on each of the drawings, capturing them for our eyes, letting us take a look at something we will probably never be able to see any other way. As he shows us these images, he comes across a partial image of a woman (the only one in the cave) and reveals he was not given access to the other side of the rock formation where the drawing continues. I understand why they limited access to this site, but it also seems like they could have let one person spend five minutes in another area to take video of the entire image. The image is fascinating, but incomplete. While I am grateful to see any bit of it, it seems like relatively little damage would have been done to capture it for millions to see on video.
There is a strange coda involving Albino Alligators who are living nearby the caves which is strange and doesn't really connect to the rest of the story. It almost feels like Herzog was trying to make the film meet a requirement of 90 minutes.
These are small quibblse because once you get to see the drawings, nothing else really matter.
The quibbles aside, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is a fascinating glimpse of a great discovery. It's definitely worth your time and money and you should see it in 3-D.