Boulder favorite Werner Herzog has a new documentary, and this time it’s in 3-D. The subject — ancient cave paintings — may not seem like it lends itself to three dimensions. But as a document of a cultural treasure that only a tiny handful of scientists are allowed to see visit, 3D seems like an extra measure of documentation. (The History Channel and the French Ministry of Culture helped the movie get made.)
Will Werner Herzog do more for 3D than 3D does for Herzog? With most recent 3-D movies being purely popcorn entertainment, that’s entirely possible.
Herzog narrates, as he did in Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. He explains where the cave is, how it was found, and the restrictions on entering. He’s only allowed to bring three others, and everyone must stay on a two-foot walkway. The air of the cave is so dangerous that they can only stay inside for 4 hours at a time. Herzog’s long-time cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger reportedly had to assemble the 3-D camera once inside. They weren’t allowed much equipment — battery powered cold lamps, the camera, and some audio recording equipment.
The paintings in Chauvet cave (pronounced “show-vee”, named for its discoverer in 1994), are remarkably well preserved. The cave is so well preserved because its lateral entrance was sealed off by a caollapse nearly 20,000 years ago. The modern entrance is from above. Inside, there are many cave bear skulls and animal and human footprints now covered in fine layers of calcite.
The oldest paintings are 30,000 years old, though some figures are probably 5,000 years younger. (Some artist must have “vandalized” the 5,000-year-old paintings with their own work.) Herzog refers, not to the ancient “people,” but “artists.” The distinction goes without saying, but Herzog says it anyway. That has an odd effect. It’s as though Herzog is excluding you and me from his own connection with his colleagues from the past. The artists made their mark, they created beauty, and they might have had different passions and motives from the working man of their day.
Herzog seems fascinated by the idea that cave paintings might have been “proto-cinema.” One bison is drawn with eight legs, suggesting movement. The flicker of torchlight probably made the walls seem alive, and indeed Herzog’s footage is lit from handheld lights that play over the surface of the cave and disappear, leaving the paintings in semidarkness as the camera lingers.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams would still be decent movie in 2D. But seeing it in 3D is probably worth a trip to the cinema, especially if you know and love Herzog, anthropology, or art. 3D is still a novelty, a special effect, but Herzog uses it here to document a fragile space of historical significance, and not just as a gimmick. Whether it actually gives you a better picture of Chauvet cave than a 2D movie, only a handful of scientists and cavers could possibly say.
Parents may want to know that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is accessible, but not packaged for easy consumption like so many nature documentaries. Herzog is a seeker of meaning, not a narrator feeding you infotainment. Intercut with footage from the cave, he talks to people who interest him — people who marvel at the emotional power and the sense of wonder that such ancient connections awaken.