Werner Herzog/Cave of Forgotten Dreams

On the 30th April, Herzog’s latest documentary feature, Into the Abyss, will be released on DVD.

Into the Abyss

Through interviews with death row inmates and those effected by their crimes, the film looks at murder and state execution and questions the sacredness of life and whether there can ever be justifiable reasons for killing.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uV1_Yc8OSw

In anticipation of the release of Into the Abyss, Rob Munday looks back at Herzog’s last documentary feature:

 Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

By Rob Munday

The Chauvet Cave in the South of France contains the earliest known cave paintings dating back 35,000 years. They provide the location for the latest documentary from master filmmaker Werner Herzog (a mere 68 years old in comparison).

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a typically odd ode to early mankind and the urge to create.

Throughout his career Werner Herzog has been restless in his pursuit of the unseen, unknown, ill-formed, wondrous, and beguiling in both man and nature. Here he has gained access to the highly restricted Chauvet caves which when discovered in 1994 revealed a brilliantly preserved array of ancient artwork.

The paintings are remarkable. What you assume will be naïve or barely formed scribblings turn out to be fully realised scenes. An assortment of creatures (now long gone from the region) are depicted with skill and subtlety. These are messages from beyond the grave – a glimpse into our ancestor’s lives. As they emerge from the shadows these images remain startlingly fresh and alive.

This is Herzog’s first 3D film and the results of using this technology are mixed.

It works well within the caves to place us within these damp walls and glowing visions. Despite being constrained by the use of a narrow metal walkway and minimal lighting Peter Zeitlinger’s camera glides elegantly across the curving walls. The sense of depth from 3D succeeds in mapping the contours and layout of this environment. All this may be useful for geologists of the future but you do wonder if it helps the effectiveness of the overall film. Outside the caves and in the interviews the 3D serves no purpose and its downsides of fuzziness and a grey pallor reduce the power of Herzog’s intimate vision.

Herzog has a knack for delving beneath the mundane to reveal the remarkable. This is particularly true of his distinctive interviews. His voice (he is always off-screen) prompts, interrupts, and unearths brilliant nuggets. His genuine interest and unfailing humility always seem to bring out the best from his subjects.

Herzog’s narration is also enjoyably idiosyncratic. He draws you in effortlessly with his philosophising and bizarre observations. There is something about his Bavarian tones that is both comforting and comical.

Despite the central wonder of its subject this film does at times fail to grip. The extended sequences inside the cave get claustrophobic and the film can occasionally drift into the arid arena of the educational documentary.

You feel that Herzog needs a central personality to focus on and to battle with like Timothy Treadwell in his previous film Grizzly Man. This film could have been an excellent 30 minutes (like his beautiful short doc Le Soufriere) but at feature-length the interest will wane for those who aren’t geologists.

Despite this there is a brilliantly mad epilogue where Herzog’s dulcet tones muse on the future of mankind while we observe albino alligators.

This may be a minor work in comparison with 2010’s best film (Bad Lieutenant), but Herzog remains a filmmaker to cherish.