(Dir: Werner Herzog, 2011)
“This is my dictum: you can shoot a porno in 3D, but you cannot shoot a romantic comedy in 3D.” This is Werner Herzog’s perfectly astute theory on the use of 3D in cinema. In his latest film CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS he has made neither a romantic comedy nor a porno, but his profound and unprecedented use of this new technology is not only innovative but also essential in the progression of cinema.
The Chauvet cave in southern France was discovered in 1994, when three cavers clambered through a tiny hole in a rock face, and were astonished at what they found. A massive cave full of hundreds of pristine preserved cave paintings of Horses, Bears, Bison, Leopards, Hippos (and many now long extinct verities of mammals). This is the subject of CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS. Some of these paintings have been carbon dated as 32,000 years old, the oldest known man made paintings. An avalanche around 20,000 years ago sealed this cave from the outside world, holding this astounding paintings inside, perfectly preserved in their original condition, locked away for the ensuing rise of modern humanity.
Werner Herzog is the first (and probably the only) filmmaker allowed into the cave (due to very sensitive climate conditions in the cave access is extremely limited). He agreed to work at an employee of the French Ministry of Culture, charging a fee of 1 Euro for the privilege of filming inside the cave. (With a skeleton crew of three and only one week, a few hours at a time to shoot inside the cave). The images revealed from the cave are truly spectacular. The elegance of the charcoal made drawings and paintings is remarkable, these are not crude or rudimentary images, but full of anatomical accuracies, character, grace and movement (a painting of a Bison has eight legs, suggesting movement, as Herzog describes, ‘almost a kind of proto-cinema’.)
Bringing these images to the viewer in 3D is in this case essential and indeed brings a whole other aspect to this documentary. The content of the cave itself (and Herzog’s meandering, profound, esoteric and often humorous narration) is enough to fill this film with awe, but the 3D cameras have captured the cave and the art in a way that is essential in understanding the works themselves, and in turn bring the cinematic medium to a genuine new artistic level. The walls that these images are painted on are not flat, they are full of curvature, concaving and convexing throughout. The Palaeolithic artists used the topography of the cave wall to create shape and dynamic movements of the animals they were depicting. These images are 3D paintings in their own right, and this use of 3D filmic technology is the first time that is has been used in film for a genuine artistic effect, which is (finally) propelling the medium into a potentially glorious new era. (Herzog does allow a few humorous nods to 3D usage recent movies, in an interview with an archaeologist demonstrating a Palaeolithic hunting spear, the tool is lunged through the screen towards the audience (just as effective as anything in Avatar!))
There is a wonderful sense of irony and (perhaps artistic symmetry/duality) that it takes the oldest known man made images (some claim these paintings reveal the awakening of the human soul) to propel a new artistic visual medium. These concepts are not wasted on Herzog. His musings fill CAVE OF FOROGOTTEN DREAMS with moments of lyrical genius, constantly pushing the viewer to consider wider possibilities and meaning to what we are seeing. On the revelation (from carbon dating) that one of the cave paintings was completed by another artist 5000 years after it was started, leads Herzog to conclude, “We are locked in history, they were not.”
We will never understand the reasons for these paintings, or what the artists were hoping to achieve, but they can perhaps resonate with us through a collective subconscious. We can look at the positive hand prints of the artist with the crooked finger, or wonder if the foot prints of an 8 year old boy side by side with that of a wolf reveal a story of friendship, or a mere coincidence. We can look at these and the intensity of the cave paintings and understand what they are, but never understand fully what they truly mean. It is perhaps this underlying factor that holds the real appeal to their story. Herzog lets this mysterious ‘other’ element linger throughout the film. Something that we know is there, but is for us intangible. This is what makes the films subject so powerful and compelling.
All this and I still haven’t mentioned the mutant albino crocodiles that star in the epilogue of the film! Go see this film for these wonderful creatures and a visual 3D awakening, and then be moved by the powerful human stories that the cave reveals to us.