If the idea of Werner Herzog making a 3D feature has you perplexed or fearful that this iconoclastic figure is simply hopping aboard a technological bandwagon, worry not. While Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the first film Werner Herzog has shot in three dimensions, it retains at its core everything we love about this man's films. It's an exploration of a world few of us will ever have the opportunity to experience for ourselves, and Herzog once again displays just as much (if not greater) interest in the humans who exist in this environment as he does in the environment himself. Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who has always enjoyed taking the road less travelled, and while most 3D productions are focused on action and spectacle, there's something perversely satisfying about the way he has applied this cutting-edge technology to the oldest artworks imaginable.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us into the depths of the Chauvet caves in France. In 1994, a collection of astonishingly well-preserved prehistoric paintings was discovered in these caves, and then the cave was promptly sealed to ensure they remained in that impeccable state of preservation. A brief period of access is only granted to scientists twice a year, which makes it all the more remarkable that Herzog has managed to persuade the French government that he and a small camera crew should be allowed to venture into the darkness and capture these valuable images. Maybe they realised that this filmmaker – the man who pulled a steamship over a mountain, walked from Berlin to Paris, and filmed in the vicinity of a dangerously active volcano – is the only man who could do justice to such a discovery.
For all of the extreme locations Herzog has found himself in over the years, 3D may be the most alien territory yet for a director who has always had such a straightforward, low-tech style. At first he appears to be struggling to find his feet with this new aesthetic; there's a distinct wobbliness to the handheld image in some of the introductory sequences, and Herzog's uncharacteristic decision to spin the camera unprompted doesn't help matters. When we finally enter the Chauvet caves, however, the reasons behind the choice of 3D for this project become clear and instantly begin paying dividends. Aided by his invaluable collaborator Peter Zeitlinger, Herzog uses the third dimension to detail the shape and contours of the rock formations that these prehistoric tribes painted various animals on. He gives us a real sense of the presence and physicality of the inner caves, and allows us to get as close as we will ever get to seeing these paintings for ourselves.
"Is this the birth of the modern human soul?" Herzog asks in his customary voiceover, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams gives him plenty of opportunities to speculate on the stories that existed behind these images. Did the prehistoric artists dream? Is a collection of rocks, seemingly carefully arranged, evidence of some primitive ritual? Did shadows from their fires dance on these walls like an early form of cinema? When we see a young boy's footsteps running parallel to those of a wolf, Herzog wonders if the wolf was tracking the boy, if they were walking side-by-side as companions, or if the tracks were in fact created years apart. These musings on the human aspect of his subject are typically Herzog, and when he's in danger of running out of material from within the cave (his shooting time was severely restricted), Herzog enjoys introducing us to some eccentric characters on the outside. You can almost hear him jump for joy when a scientist he's interviewing reveals a past life as a circus performer, and who else but Herzog would find a perfumer who claims to be capable of identifying caves through their odour alone?
There's a sense of both reverence and fun throughout Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The carefully composed camerawork and haunting choral score (provided by another Herzog regular, Ernst Reijseger) seeks to fill us with awe as we observe these precious artworks, but the director also has fun with the 3D technique, including a spear-throwing lesson just for the chance to jab things at the unsuspecting audience. He even finds time for a bizarre – and tenuously connected – late sidetrack involving nuclear crocodiles, and while all of this footage in the hands of any documentarian would have been fascinating, only Werner Herzog could have brought such a strange, distinctive and engaging edge to it. The employment of 3D has not changed Werner Herzog one bit and he remains one of the most inquisitive and adventurous artists in cinema. May he long continue to seek out such wonderful and strange stories in the places where few others have the determination or imagination to go.