Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Early on in Werner Herzog's latest documentary, the director tells us in his inimitable voice that since the Chauvet Cave, the large focus of the film, is only accessible for extremely short intervals and navigable only via the two-metre walkway that has been built as a strictly kept-to viewing platform, Herzog and his minimal film crew are inevitably going to be in each other's shots. If we can accept this small apology from the filmmaker who has in the past gone to great lengths to provide the extraordinary - from mirroring steamship-over-mountain escapades on the Fitzcarraldo (1982) set to filming in the Antarctic's hostile conditions for the visually hypnotic Encounters at the End of the World (2007) - we might be pushed here in forgiving the increasingly grating presence of Herzog himself.
The biggest problem with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog's first foray into 3D, is that the director has given himself, perhaps because of the inevitability of his appearing in some of the tightly framed cave footage, a role beyond that of mere documentarian, one that seemingly attempts genuine philosophising but comes off too often as pseudo-spiritualist pap. To be blunt, Herzog's artistic voice is less visionary these days than manic; indeed, the genuinely surreal notion of exploring an untouched, fully preserved cave that boasts human paintings 40,000 years old doesn't so much seem to have accomodated his preoccupations as been hijacked by them. Here, the documentarian gets in the way of his own document(ary).

The Chauvet Cave was discovered in 1994 by Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire and Jean-Marie Chauvet, and has been sealed off to the public ever since, in order to maintain the conditions that had until that point allowed for the untouched preservation of paintings and other evidence of Paleolithic life for tens of thousands of years (specialist scientists and archeologists are allowed access for a short time each year).

The cave paintings depict species typical of the period (horses, reindeer, bison), as well as predators rarely seen in other examples of such art (lions, bears, panthers, wild dogs). Most obvious about these remarkable findings, beyond the extraordinary conditions that have allowed for their preservation in the first place, is that the drawings themselves are stunning. Not simply primitive suggestions of animal life, they are rich, anatomically sound illustrations of various species, made all the more remarkable by the fact they have been captured on the naturally jagged, inconsistent walls of a cave. There are several instances of horses drawn with eight legs, as if to capture their movement. Herzog suggests this is a kind of "proto-cinema".

This last point of course leads us to the film's flaws; Herzog makes the comment but doesn't attempt to follow it up, as if his thoughts are final. Indeed, the film as a whole is a deliberately naive work, fascinated by its own limitations and intellectual shortcomings; indeed, if the director is keen to dedicate his film to the three speleologists who discovered the cave, and includes summary details of the incredibly complex technologies that aid the natural sciences, too often he makes overly humbled broad assessments that patronise the viewer, all of which carry a vague mysticism or even religiousness. Instead of genuinely probing details, such as the professional debate surrounding the precise dates of this cave art, there is a general tone of contentment, of not knowing "the unknown".

Herzog has been drawn throughout his career to filming the unfilmable or bringing to the screen parts of the world other directors have not, for whatever reason, accessed. But whereas earlier documentaries, such as the short films The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969), La Soufrière (1977) or the excellent The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) brought a sense of awe to what was to the subjects of those films a daily routine (medical life, a volcanic eruption, athletic genius), which then extended to later documentaries such as 2004's White Diamond and 2005's Grizzly Man - both of which became adventure-docs that mirrored their own subjects (respectively, forest exploration and post-Steve Irwin wildlife obsession) - Cave of Forgotten Dreams has an obvious absence: the humans that created the art we are seeing.

Archeology is an important field in aiding our understanding of prehistoric cultures, but the closest Herzog comes to seeking insight to these Paleolithic peoples is to have a modern expert throw (badly) spears away from camera; one sighs with relief (and surprise) when he is not asked to launch the spear towards us in full-on 3D. Though there are some fascinating observations to be made about the cave itself that hint toward religious ceremonies, such as a cave bear's skull placed centrally on a stone with coals surrounding its base, for the large part, Herzog is too quick to pose vague rhetorical questions and then answer them with "We will never know." One of these concerns the foot-prints of "an eight-year-old boy" and a wolf in close proximity on the cave's floor; Herzog ponders if they walked hand in hand as friends.

Another of these questions appears in the glaring, self-declared "post-script" that features crocodiles and albino reptiles shot in close-up. The director, who earlier in the film bombastically described the Chauvet Cave as a "frozen flash of a moment in time" posits what these crocs would make of the cave if they saw it for themselves. If it's a serious question it's also a ridiculous one, and if it's somehow a joke, it's misplaced. Whatever of this sequence's wider intentions, it has no place in the film; it would be better suited to a deleted scenes feature on Herzog's previous effort, Bad Lieutenant, a film that also featured weird scenes with reptiles.

This isn't a howler like that film was, though, and there are fascinating moments. Tellingly, it is at its best when Herzog allows the cave drawings to be captured without commentary. Which is not to say some commentary is unnecessary. But if the insight we're provided is the kind of "artsy fartsy" ruminations that the father Herzog played in Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) would scoff at, then we're permitted to forget such dreams and ask for a more questioning and focused work.