Werner Herzog is the Chuck Norris of directors: He once ate his shoe on a bet; he also took a sniper bullet (albeit from an air rifle) to the stomach mid-interview and shrugged it off as "not significant." The controversial man is crazy, this much we know.
The eccentric German filmmaker's latest, 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams,' a documentary about prehistoric cave paintings shot in futuristic 3D, is significantly less crazy. But from Herzog's patented philosophizing to a bizarre postscript featuring albino alligators, the film may still leave some moviegoers scratching their heads.
As a public service, we'll break down what to expect once you don your 3D glasses for 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' -- but you're still on your own when it comes to 'Even Dwarfs Started Small.'
What Is 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' About?
In 1994, a group of explorers discovered an underground cave in southern France that had been hidden by a landslide thousands of years ago. What they found inside was a stunning collection of prehistoric paintings, some from over 30,000 years ago, making them twice as old as any previously discovered. Considered one of the most significant sites of prehistoric art ever found, the Chauvet Cave (its full name is Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave) was quickly shut off to all but a small group of researchers. That is, until Herzog and his crew of three were invited to bring in their 3D cameras and show us around.
Part art-house documentary, prehistoric history lesson, and philosophical science-fiction, 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' is a first-person tour of the Chauvet Cave guided by Herzog's inimitable narration. Granted unprecedented access by the French Ministry of Culture, the director goes spelunking in a place us mere mortals could never hope to visit, and takes us along for the ride as he explores the site's historical and cultural significance.
Like most modern documentaries, 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' is also about its own 'Making of...' process, and the difficulty in documenting such a severely restricted place. The two-foot-wide metal pathway traversing the cave floor not only limited the crew's movement, but also impaired views of the paintings themselves. And because of the increased levels of carbon dioxide, Herzog and his crew were not permitted to stay in the caves for longer than four hours a day.
But the remarkably well-preserved paintings of long-extinct lions, horses, mammoths, and rhinos they captured aren't mere doodles, but legitimate works of art, using the contours of the walls to create depth and simulate movement. Treating the cave with the same reverence as an ancient cathedral, Herzog waxes philosophic about the prehistoric painters and their dreams, seeing in them kindred spirits.
Indeed, the director is just as fascinated by the cave's modern characters as their ancient counterparts. Among them: a circus-juggler-turned-scientist, a perfume-maker who uses his superior olfactory abilities to try to sniff out new caves, and an "experimental archeologist" in a reindeer fur hoodie who uses a reconstructed ivory flute to play the Star Spangled Banner. And we haven't even gotten to the mutant alligators yet.
Yeah, What's With the Alligators?
Despite being partially funded by the History Channel, 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' is clearly not your typical historical documentary. As far as Herzog's concerned, he's not just chronicling a major archeological find, the birth of cave painting and artistic expression, but also the birth of the soul.
Herzog has always been a filmmaker enamored with exploration, whether he's exploring new frontiers like Antarctica, cinematic boundaries, human nature, or the depths of Klaus Kinski's sanity. It's no different in 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams,' as Herzog delves into what separates those prehistoric humans from us, or the animals they painted.
And that's what's at the center of the film's postscript -- a bewildering fictionalized segment about a nearby nuclear reactor and its warm water run-off that supposedly fuels a biosphere filled with alligators and their mutated albino "doppelgangers." Venturing into self-parody, Herzog leaves us with one final question: Are we simply alligators looking back into "the abyss of time" when we gaze at the Chauvet Cave paintings?
OK, so you're on your own with that one too.