Filmmaker, documentarian and nutter Werner Herzog has a hard-earned reputation in all three of those fields. From the magnificently staged feature films (Fitzcarraldo) to the more mainstream fare (Rescue Dawn), Herzog has always pushed the boundaries. On several occasions, he’s also pushed the boundaries of good sense. Yet it is with documentaries that Herzog seems to have a special affinity, achieving a parallel level of success in this field that only a handful of other filmmakers have managed to do. His non-fiction works can be shocking (Grizzly Man), epic (Encounters at the End of the World) or intensely personal (My Best Fiend). With Caves of Forgotten Dreams, he manages to combine all of these passions into one, using the 3D format for the first time in his career.
In 1994, the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave was discovered in southern France, significant for having some of the earliest cave paintings in human history, and also being magnificently preserved. Herzog goes inside the caves, along with a small group of scientists and historians he interviews, to discover their meaning.
Turning back to the documentary form after fictional features Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans and the little-seen (at least in Australia) My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Herzog’s continues his fascination with the gaze. Typically it is Herzog’s distinctive lens that is casting its eye, and Herzog’s unmistakeable voice, over the sometimes seemingly mundane, making them fascinating and endlessly rewatchable. Here Herzog’s subject is one that does not have its own voice in the traditional sense, but tells a story from the very birth of civilisation or as Herzog drones in his narration, “the beginnings of the modern human soul”. It’s as if the first humans left their stamp on the walls to scream across time that “we were here”. Or maybe it’s just some much younger pretty pictures on some rocks. Either way, Herzog uses his uncanny and often brilliant ability to tap into those human connections, and his true strength lies in his constant search for answers.
Actually finding a decent use for the 3D format for the first time in – let’s be honest – the history of the technology, Herzog and his small crew make the most of their limited access to the cave system. Herzog’s distinctive narration can occasionally grate, and in typical Herzog fashion searches for meaning where there may be none. In a possible callback to his Bad Lieutenant closing line (“Do fish have dreams?”), Herzog takes a massive aside during the postscript to examine some albino crocodiles that are the result of nearby nuclear power plants. He ponders what they would make of the cave painting, then goes one step further in asking “Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?”. Maybe we are, Werner. Maybe we are.