DVD Review: ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’

'Hypnotic... A truly unique experience.'

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

While his latest documentary, Into the Abyss, basks in the glow of an already highly acclaimed theatrical run, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog’s exploration from last year of the Paleolithic cave art at the Chauvet Cave in France is finally enjoying an anticipated DVD release, courtesy of Sundance. Herzog is an eccentric and penetrating director with over forty years of stylistically audacious work under his belt – not just documentaries, but weird and disturbing narrative films like Nosferatu and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. True to form, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is both an informative and fascinating anthropological treatise, and a deeply personal meditation on the roots of human thought and culture.

Like Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams catalogues the director’s own personal journey to a remote and mysterious location, and divides its attention equally between the poetic nuances of the natural landscape and the activities of the people inhabiting it. In Encounters, the human subjects were people who, for various reasons, have chosen to live and work in the punishing and geographically remote Antarctic, and Herzog’s endearing and occasionally hilarious interviews with them were balanced by breathtaking photography of underwater caves and towering rock formations. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, similarly, links the activities of a modern team of scientists and art historians exploring and documenting the contents of the Chauvet Cave with a loving cinematic catalogue of the cave interiors, punctuated by Herzog’s probing ruminations about the origin and meaning of the cave paintings themselves and their relationship to the surrounding geologic environment.

As a straightforward educational document, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is engaging and cohesive, but like most of Herzog’s work, it’s meant to be experienced intuitively. The purpose of Herzog’s visiting film crew was simply to document the cave interiors, but the suggestion is of a mystical descent into a secret and forbidden chamber of hidden knowledge that can never be fully understood or expressed. Herzog’s interviews with his colleagues, and with scientists and anthropologists who worked on the original excavation, convey the same sense of breathless excitement and wonder articulated in his slow pans over the surfaces of the cave walls. The texture created by the overlapping outlines of the animal paintings and handprints on the undulating interiors of the cave is genuinely striking.

The Sundance DVD includes just a trailer for the film and a short documentary by Herzog about the recording of the soundtrack by composer Ernst Reijseger, and the digital transfer looks predictably nice and crisp. Aside from the built-in interest of the subject matter and the riveting images of the cave paintings that Herzog captures, the parallels he draws between the motivations of ancient artists and the modern need to explore and interpret the world, as well as the hypnotic mood he evokes, make Cave of Forgotten Dreams a truly unique experience.