It is almost as if the paintings were waiting for the film to get made. The Chauvet Cave in Southern France suffered a cave-in several thousands of years ago, blocking its entrance and effectively preserving the paintings and everything else inside from deterioration caused by the elements and the natural course of time. For several decades since its discovery, the paintings have only been enjoyed through photographs and replicas, considering that entry to the cave have been limited to a few individuals. That is until Werner Herzog and his crew of three were granted unprecedented entry to film the interior of the cave. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is that result of the unlikely marriage of fate and genius.
Instead of merely treating the paintings as isolated works of art, Herzog posits that the paintings are prehistoric prototypes of cinema, explaining that the position of the paintings, the way they were painted, where they were painted, the possible sources of light in the cave allude to an illusion of movement and to a possible fantasy. Herzog's hypothesis immediately removes the cave paintings from a position of trite curiosity into something more immediate and relevant. The paintings have turned into products of our conspirators in dreaming. They are evidence of something intrinsically shared with the prehistoric men. Herzog turns these anonymous people from the distant past into relatable characters with hearts and souls that are kindred to ours.
Herzog does not completely settle inside the cave. Instead, he frequently flies away, curiously focusing on the people around the film: their dreams, their inadequacies, quirks and past lives. Although separated by differing priorities and millenniums, there's a connection that's established between the subject of the film and his erstwhile subjects, and hopefully, the audience. In one scene, Herzog forces this connection, staging an ominous silence inside the cave, keeping his guides, his crew, and himself in a prayerful stance listening to a supposed communal heartbeat. Ernst Reijseger's powerful score not so much swells but creeps into the middle of that shared contemplation, turning Herzog's orchestrated meditation with that filament of humanity he strives to define into some sort of graceful sequence which it is ostensibly not.
The most beautiful thing that Herzog committed to in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is to expand it into something quite larger than it should be. The use of 3D for example is not for mere spectacle. Instead, it is a necessary tool to create that illusion of being inside the cave, of witnessing the actual contours of the cave walls instead of seeing a flat representation of those contours, of experiencing the movement of the painted animals instead of only imagining motion. Considering that the cave paintings and the cinema they aspire to be are all tools that utilize illusions to function as tools to approximate reality, 3D serves as a companion piece to this illusion-building by requiring the approximation of space and depth as essential to not only experience the wonders of the cave but also to understand Herzog's claims.
That Herzog does not rely solely on hard facts and historical accuracy is what makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams so immeasurably fascinating. After all, what we see in the cave paintings are only minute facets of the immense world that the prehistoric man could have lived in and exploited. We can only watch in awe, dream connections and relations. Yet, we can never be exactly sure. We can only speak and feel from the very little that we know and the very vast that we can imagine. The documentary, as most documentaries do, places us in a comfortable position of looking at and into the subject. Thus, when the film moves into its postscript, with Herzog suddenly placing the audience as the subject for possible interpretation and interpolation of albino alligators that came from the probable future, the tables are turned, and the effect is nothing short of sublime.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)