The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, an alternate Alternate Take

Written by Paul Cuff.

Photo from the article EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the site’s second extended attempt to come to grips with Herzog’s extraordinary documentary. Roy Ashman’s original Alternate Take on the film can be read here.


“MANKIND’S LOST MASTERPIECE… IN 3D” So reads the poster tagline for Werner Herzog’s latest theatrical release. As I passed the billboards on my way into the cinema, I wondered what the intonation of “…in 3D” might be, if spoken. Would there be a suggestive rise in pitch? A nervous elongation of vowels? An affirmative peroration?

The spate of trailers for new 3D films I had seen either emphasized the spectacle of action for fantasy and adventure (dragons/spears swooping/thrusting ever closer to my precious face) or a greater sense of performative presence (dancers/actors pirouetting/gesticulating as if I had “the best seat in the house”). Their boast was to make the fantastic more real and the real more fantastic. Once I had heard of its existence, I wondered where Herzog’s documentary would sit in this bizarre array of possibility.

One of the few 3D feature films I had seen was Alice in Wonderland (2010). During that film, I had often found myself looking at the edge of the screen, reminding myself of the frame and the finite limitation of its physical boundaries. Then I would guide my eyes toward the centre, knowing my vision was being fooled into this strange approximation of three-dimensional reality. I couldn’t suppress a weird feeling that I was being rather ineptly duped. I felt as if cinema had regressed to the level of a child’s pop-up book. “The infantilization of the image!” my inner naysayer cried out. I was reluctant to seek out other 3D films. As an impoverished pedant, I can only afford to go to the cinema when I am reasonably certain to enjoy my film of choice. However, as Herzog is one of my favourite living human beings, I felt certain to get something out of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I was not disappointed.

From the opening shot, I was utterly absorbed. The 3D was immediately striking: the camera floats through a field lined with youthful vines. The depth of perspective and the texture of the image is given geometric reality by the vines receding into the distance. I was half-entranced, half-bewildered by the mere fact of watching 3D in a documentary. Flecks of silver got caught in my eye - the presence of insects flitting in the air (the 3D process cannot capture their detail and position in the focal field as anything more than pixels). Ernst Reijseger’s haunting score starts as the camera half-walks, half-glides through the field and towards the distant hills. Soon, Herzog’s voice was sending tingles down the back of my neck as the camera approached the entrance to the cave.

Much of the opening half hour is taken up with explaining the history of the cave and its discovery, as well as the restrictions of filming inside. There are also interviews with the various scientists and historians who have worked in the cave. Though there are some typically Herzogian questions directed at the interviewees, the film doesn’t try and delve into their inner lives to the same extent as Encounters at the End of the World (2007) does. There, the scientists were as much the subject of Herzog’s film as the environment in which they worked. Aside from the film’s fantastical epilogue, there is little deliberate digression or imposition on narrative or narration in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In many previous “documentaries”, Herzog has ended-up doing not only the narration and interviewing, but also the translated voiceover for any interviewees. He has also deliberately stylized, reordered, disguised, and manipulated “facts” in order to achieve greater “truth” when necessary.

The most extensive section of pure information in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a long sequence where we follow Dominique Baffier, who serves as a historical guide and narrator for areas of the cave. After several minutes of her factual recitation, we are left entirely alone with the paintings themselves. Moving from historical context, Herzog concentrates on letting us experience these works of art. This is the film’s central sequence, and Herzog’s most mesmerizing use of 3D.

The whole sequence consists of the camera panning extremely slowly over the rock-face, as torchlight and shadows move across the cave walls. The surface of the screen becomes a magical, malleable surface. Are we being drawn into the cave or is the cave reaching out to us? The painters’ use of the texture and shape of the cave’s rises and recessions become remarkably apparent. Is that horse really moving? Are those rhinos really grappling with one another? Herzog uses 3D here for an added sense of physicality, to render the reality of the rock surface as accurately as possible. Yet this is not just realism. This is a hallucinatory realism, and in this sense constitutes a revelatory use of 3D’s strange ability to appear simultaneously both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’.

As Herzog explains in the course of his voiceover, many people believe the prehistoric artists may have used the effect of their flickering torchlight and silhouettes as part of the spiritual experience. The film’s replication of this process not only brings us closer to the reality of being in the caves, but revivifies the visionary aspect of the original artists. Equally, as Herzog later explores, there is evidence that the cave painters made and played musical instruments. Reijseger’s music thus acts as another way in which to approach the prehistoric community and reach towards a fuller experience of their art. Unlike some of Herzog’s other films, where existing classical music is often used to accompany disparate or divergent images, Reijseger’s score was especially composed and feels improvisatory. When a vocal element is introduced, he uses wordless configurations, stripping the voices of any linguistic or cultural specificity. The soundtrack feels ancient, timeless. The music during the central sequence builds to a strange, ecstatic sense of wonder.

And the images we are shown are stunning - simply stunning. Herzog keeps on coming back to a series of horses’ heads, each seeming to rise above the other in a proto-cinematic sense of fragmented movement. This “panel” is more remarkable each time you see it. I was captivated by the open mouth of the lowest horse. I could almost hear it whinnying and was transfixed by the beautiful way in which the artist had rendered its expression. The film having already set up the historical timeline of the paintings’ composition, I was suddenly taken aback when it hit home that this image was 30,000 years old. The painting was able to reach out to me across the “abyss of time” and live again. I was somehow sharing a connection with a human being from the dawn of culture, and of consciousness itself. The brilliance of the sequence is that it gives the viewer the time and space in which to be gradually overwhelmed by what it is they are being shown, by the miraculous reality of its presence. The 3D was a large part of the effect the film had on me. The magical oddity of watching a 3D movie, the way in which the reality of the film’s inner world is simultaneously contained within the frame yet seems to crane out of its surface, is held within this captivating, rapturously beautiful sequence.

Outside the caves, especially in the interior office spaces, the 3D feels wholly unnecessary and sometimes distracting. As well as the flying insects that the 3D of the opening shot reduced to specks of silver, I noticed many of the handheld exterior shots near the cave entrance rendered the undergrowth very blurry. (Herzog has spoken about 3D’s liability to become nauseating when there is too much camera movement or frenetic editing.) There is also the issue that, due to 3D’s reduced image quality and the tint of the required glasses, the audience loses some of the colours the film would otherwise possess (perhaps not such an issue in a dark cave, but some of the paintings do use coloured pigments).

Herzog’s sense of humour is a refreshing contrast to the depths of the film’s subject matter. His occasional roughness of touch undercuts any risk of the 3D technology being too smugly displayed. I found it wonderfully endearing that Herzog still keeps the unfinished edges and mistakes that others might try and smooth away. Just as he included footage of an astrophysicist nodding off on camera during an interview in The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), or focused on strange moments of awkward post-interview silence during Encounters at the End of the World, so Herzog has some fun with interviewees in Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

For example, there is the presence of Maurice Maurin. During his piece to camera, Maurin starts to talk about himself, proudly announcing his official rank and role as “master perfumer”. Then he runs out of things to say. He makes a strange, delightfully Gallic, gesture (combining a kind of shrug with a cheek-bulging proximity to exhalation) and the camera pans away from him as he smiles in amused confusion. I would also highlight the engagingly charming Jean-Michel Geneste, an expert on prehistoric culture. In one sequence, he demonstrates the weaponry used by the people who used the Chauvet caves. In what almost becomes a parody of action/adventure films and their use of 3D to make audiences duck when something is thrown “out” of the screen, Geneste thrusts a spear towards the camera. He plays around with the weapons and jokes at his lack of power. Then he uses a spear-throwing device to show the great distance a projectile could travel in the air. The spear glides across the field. He sets off to retrieve it, but Herzog’s voice from behind the camera bluntly orders him to stop: “No! Stay here.” His tone sounds comically threatening and made me laugh out loud. Almost any other filmmaker would have cut this moment out, but Herzog keeps it in. The effect is, for want of a better term, wonderfully human.

Throughout Cave of Forgotten Dreams, there are aerial shots which allow the camera to float along the river valley in a hypnotically smooth fashion (usually accompanied by diegetic silence and non-diegetic music). Near the end of the film, there is a sequence that reveals how this footage was captured. We are given another of these aerial shots, this time accompanied by a strange whining sound. The camera begins to hover closer to a small crowd of men on the bank of the river. When 3D focus finally sharpens enough to let us see these figures in detail, we realize that the nearest one holds a remote control. The camera descends towards the ground, and a figure reaches up and grasps us by the frame. It’s a delightful moment, revealing how absolute simplicity is used to propel visual wizardry.

Herzog’s film manages to be humorous, informative, and transcendent. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is both spectacular and real, documentary and fantasy. I can only echo other people who have seen the film and state that I felt I had been inside the Chauvet caves. Yet it was more than this: I had seen something unique, and I had gone back in time.

This article was published on April 01, 2011.

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