Werner Herzog’s newest documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (2010) is essentially a companion piece to his last doc Encounters at the End of the World (2007). In Encounters, Herzog found himself exploring Antarctica: the wild life (“I made it clear I would not be making another movie about penguins.”), the scenery (beautiful, serine, ice caves), and the scrappy group of people drawn to life at the South Pole. Now, Herzog finds himself in another environmental extreme: the Chauvet Cave in southern France. The cave, discovered in 1994, features some of the earliest known cave paintings and other evidence of ancient life that were perfectly preserved by a rock slide. For Herzog, these cave paintings provide multiple lines of inquiry including a type of proto-cinema in which the representations of life including horses are presented in faux-motion by the artists’ use of multiple images and as an artifact chronicling our ancestors’ ways of life.
The problem with Cave, unlike Encounters, is that the environmental extreme has hampered Herzog’s filmmaking with a set of necessary and frustrating obstructions. In order to preserve the cave’s fragile ecosystem and the paintings, Herzog was only allowed to have three additional people in the cave (cinematography Peter Zeitlinger, a sound recorder, and an assistant). This stripped down production team is almost paradoxical to the aim of the project, representing these glorious cave paintings in 3D, as the 3D shooting process normally requires a great deal of manpower and more forgiving environment. Moreover, Herzog was only allowed into the cave for four hours a day for six days, meaning that he had to turn out a feature length film out of only twenty-four hours of footage. Making the task even more Sisyphean, Herzog and his team could not traverse the space of the cave as desired—-they were required to follow pre-forged paths.
These limitations have forced Herzog to make a documentary that feels too short and yet, sometimes, overlong. By not being able to freely walk around the site, Herzog gives us stunning 3D compositions of cave paintings but must leave out certain details, as they paintings do not bend to the will of the scientists’ paths. He tries to engineer ways around this, including attaching the small cameras to sticks and holding them out around corners, but the viewer (and probably Herzog as well) come away feeling that they have only experienced a small fraction of what the cave has to offer us. In order to perhaps justify the high cost of 3D (both for the filmmakers and the consumers), Herzog stretches what is essentially maybe forty to sixty minutes of amazing footage into an hour and half, taking tangents to explore a perfume engineer who tracks down potential cave sites by smell and a collection of albino alligators. The end result is a film that feels too long, too thin, and a little disjointed. Again, it’s hard to fault Herzog for this shaggy structure, given the protective measures taken by the curators of the cave.
While Cave will make some viewers shelling out $20 for a 3D movie ticket feel slighted (even art house aficionados, the group I went with, walked away a bit disappointed), there are amazing sights to be found. Despite the limitations, Herzog has given us one of the best uses of 3D to grace the screen. The depths of the caverns, the textures of the rocks that make up the paintings and the beautiful scenery surrounding the cave are breathtaking. Moreover, his use of mobile lighting rigs gives the compositions a proper aesthetic, like handheld torches bouncing the compositions at us in poetic fragments. Like Coraline (2009) and Avatar (2009), this film steers away from out of focus, dim, trick compositions and I was glad to have seen it in the theater. Yet, I almost wish Herzog had shot Encounters at the End of the World in 3D where, like the filmmaker he truly is, Herzog could escape unrestrained.