In America, Herzog is probably better known as a documentarian than for his epic features of the 1970s and 1980s. Given his cartoonish accent and his globetrotting proclivities, he's our modern-day Jacques Cousteau, or maybe a real-life Steve Zissou. But he also remains a pictorial genius and a postmodern primitive who synthesizes classical narrative cinema and the pre-Hollywood model of the cinema of attractions. He can tell stories, but his first impulse is always to show us something amazing, whether it's the Iraqi oil fields burning or Klaus Kinski dining alone. It was an inspired decision to let him have a 3D camera and enter the Chauvet cave to show us the oldest-known artwork by human beings.
Image from The New Yorker magazine website.
Discovered only in the 1990s, the cave paintings were preserved after a long-ago rockslide sealed the original entrance. To protect the precious pictures from the ravages of tourism, access is strictly limited, and those limitations are part of the genius of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog has an unparalleled opportunity to work, but he's also under extraordinary constraints. He can only bring three crewmembers down with him, they can film usually only for an hour at a time, and they cannot step off the pathways the preservationists have installed. Under these conditions the director behaves himself. Faced with the mystery of what can be seen on the other side of an overhang which features the only human representation at Chauvet (a woman's rear end), he ultimately contrives a pole which he can extend out to the other side while remaining on the walkway. Herzog is nothing if not a problem solver.
He also makes the best use of 3D that I can imagine. The technology still has its limitations; compositions in depth can still look a lot like layers of transparencies rather than figures in actual space. But Herzog plays to the technology's strengths -- he may even have discovered strengths hitherto unknown. He'll give you what you expect, directing a scholar to brandish a spear at the camera. But what he excels at is the close-up examination of texture, the interplay of light and shadow on contoured surfaces. He believes that the Chauvet painters exploited the contours of the cave walls for effects (hence the necessity of 3D) and wants to convince us that the paintings are not just the earliest human pictures but the earliest moving pictures. As he presents them, you can almost buy his argument. You can believe that the multiple legs on the creatures are meant to represent movement, and you can believe that they might have been part of a presentation in which select images were illuminated by torchlight one at a time in narrative fashion. That's really more my idea than Herzog's, but his ideas get you thinking. In any event, his close-up in-depth shots of the paintings are extraordinary, as are the panning shots that try to catch the paintings in full.
Herzog is famously disparaging toward the work of Jean-Luc Godard -- once saying that there was more pure cinema in kung-fu movies -- but Cave of Forgotten Dreams finds him expressing Godard-like skepticism about the communicative power of images. What can the Chauvet paintings really tell us about the people who painted them? Not much, really. Other evidence tells us that the cave wasn't used as a human dwelling. Did it serve some ritual role? One piece of evidence, a bear skull mounted on an altar-like rock, is suggestive but insufficient. The point Herzog returns to constantly is that we simply can't know for certain what Chauvet was all about, or what forgotten dreams inspired the painters. That radical uncertainty only seems to inspire him to peer more deeply into each image, as if to reproduce for us the effect he and the researchers claim to have experienced, the feeling that they were interrupting works still in progress. Given that some of the paintings reportedly juxtapose images created centuries or millennia apart, it could be argued that Herzog does continue the original painters' work by filming them and suggesting additional layers of meaning. New dreams can be superimposed on the old and forgotten -- but what will the albino alligators make of all this? The irony of it all, which the director probably appreciates, is that the alligators may someday commune with the cave paintings with less restraints than Herzog had, and if they have the mental means, they'll confront the paintings with fresh eyes, long after Herzog's own dreams have been more completely forgotten. For us, here and now, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a look into an abyss of history that may inspire dreams of history looking back.