There's nothing I love more than a little Werner Herzog voiceover narration. In fact, for Christmas this year, I'd like someone to invent a Herzog app that would narrate my life in Werner's Teutonic drawl. Therefore, it was inevitable that I would see his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams as soon as it started streaming on the 'Flix. After watching it last night to cleanse my palate from the execrable The Sitter, I'm ready to type a sentence I never thought I would commit to screen: It would have been better in 3D.
The film's title, in the grand Herzogian tradition (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, The Transformation of the World into Music, Little Dieter Needs to Fly) is excessively baroque and opaque. The key word is "cave." Herzog, just because he's Herzog, from what I can tell, acquired permission to film the earliest examples of rock art in the Chauvet Cave in southern France. It's the first and only time cameras have been allowed to capture the 32,000 year old petroglyphs. The forgotten dreams stuff is classic Herzog rhapsodics.
The film is chock-full of classic characters that seem to flock to Werner like idiosyncratic moths to the German mothership of eccentrics, to mix a metaphor in classic Herzogian style. Who else could find the one archaeologist in all of France, and perhaps the universe, who used to be a unicyclist in the circus, and had to stop entering the caves because he was plagued by dreams of lions? Or the "experimental archaeologist" who dresses like a caveman on camera and plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his paleolithic flute? It's truly must-see TV.
As for the paintings themselves, they are remarkably accomplished, and, what I never before realized, massive. You need a human figure in the frame to lend the drawings perspective, and therein lies the thesis of Herzog's film. He means to draw a direct throughline from these beautifully shaded and narrativized paintings to his own film, and therefore from the humans who lived unimaginable lives thousands of years ago, to us. The fact that the cave is so cramped that there are very few shots without some piece of camera equipment in them therefore makes aesthetic sense--all art is of a piece. Much like Hugo, a much more accessible film, to say the least, Cave of Forgotten Dreams posits that the production of visual art is the one defining characteristic that makes people people. Hence the 3D. It makes sense for this film to be shot with depth because Herzog argues, with a hand alternatively heavy and light, that art gives us depth--creates our consciousness, our capacity to dream. So maybe the title isn't that out there after all. That, or I was hypnotized into acquiescence by the Herzogian voiceover.