There’s a scene in ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ where the screen is filled with a computer-mapped image of the interior of Chauvet Cave in southern France – home to a veritable art gallery’s worth of pre-historic cave paintings – while Herzog delivers an unusually ordinary bit of expository voiceover. Cut to one of the technicians responsible for the mapping, sitting at a desk, computer in front of him, discussing the mapping work. Again, it’s all very typical of a documentary opening with the History Channel’s logo. Then the technician happens to mention that he comes from a non-scientific background; Herzog interrupts him and asks what he did before; the man gives a self-conscious grin and answers that he was in the circus. And – bingo! – we’re in Herzog territory good and proper.
While ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ – haunting music and dream-like meditations on the unknowable past notwithstanding – is one of the more orthodox entries on Herzog’s CV, it’s still the kind of film that only Herzog could have made. The chance to film, in strictly regimented conditions and with an almost draconian time limit, an area that will never been seen except by a handful of scientific experts must have been irresistible to modern cinema’s most passionate explorer. The historic importance of the paintings was established very shortly after their discovery in 1994 and the cave was immediately sealed off. Restrictions around access were imposed to preserve the cave’s climate and conditions. Herzog and a crew of just three had to use battery powered equipment and use lighting which gave off no heat.
Sure, it’s not as crazy as the “hey, there’s a small island that might just get blown to shit by an active volcano, why not let’s fly in?” aesthetic of ‘La Soufriere’, but there’s that same sense of race-against-time filmmaking at work. Oh yeah, and he shot it in 3-D as well. (Full disclosure/bone of contention: ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ came and went in Nottingham cinemas in something slightly faster than the blink of an eye. I’ve only seen it on DVD in bog standard 2D. It still rankles that I didn’t get to see it on the big screen and in the original format. I think it would have proved cinema’s only genuinely tactile use of the form.)
‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is several things – the least of which is a documentary about cave paintings. It’s about memory, perception, dreams, and the passing of time. And it’s an act of liberation. It takes the sealed Chauvet cave, wrests it from the hands of researchers and academics, and makes a beautiful and richly textured gift of it to the world.