Nothing would please me more than to report that Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the greatest documentary ever. Unfortunately, while it’s definitely the finest 3D movie about prehistoric cave paintings ever made (how’s that for a pull quote on the DVD?), the movie doesn’t quite live up to the awe and wonder inspired by its subject. Then again, it’s a pretty heady subject to stack up against and, even if the glimpse the film offers is imperfect, it demands to be seen.

In 1994 a group of cave explorers discovered a series of prehistoric paintings in a cave in southern France. Estimated to be around 30,000 years old, some of the paintings – from figures of different animals to, most interestingly, human hand prints – are the earliest known examples of human artistic expression. Having learned their lesson from the degradation of similar sites, French authorities have limited access to the paintings to a select handful of scientists. Werner Herzog being Werner Herzog (he apparently offered himself up as an employee of the French government for the sum of one Euro), convinced the French Minister of Culture to grant him permission to film the caves and thereby provide a record for the world.

For anyone interested in art or history or why humans do some of the non-evolutionarily beneficial things they do (like paint) or even if you’re just a fan of Herzog’s particular deadpan Teutonic is-he-serious-or-is-he-yanking-our-chain quirkiness, then Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a must-see. With diversions ranging from a quick prehistoric spear-throwing lesson to a rumination on albino alligators, Herzog is in top form and this subject is a perfect companion to his other forays into human obsession and perseverance such as Grizzly Man or Little Dieter Needs to Fly. At the same time, Herzog’s enthusiasm for his subject is palpable and it lends the doc an engaging energy.

Unfortunately, the extreme restrictions placed on the tiny crew, their limited filming window and the scaled back equipment they were allowed to bring are all liabilities that the film is only partially able to overcome. Confined as Herzog and his crew were to man-made walkways running along the cave floor, the images they captured sometimes have a detached, static quality like you’re on a guided tram tour. It’s understandable, but it’s also frustrating.

All of these liabilities are further compounded by Herzog’s decision to film using the illusion of 3D. Herzog obviously wanted this once in a lifetime experience to be as much of a “you are there” moment for his audience as it promised to be for him. The 3D is meant to bring the images to life, painted as they are along natural bulges, curves and depressions, and to give you a sense of the depth and scope of the environment. This works to a point, but it unfortunately winds up as much of an eye-straining distraction as an asset. Plus, with limited lighting equipment, I don’t think the images are as brightly lit as they need to be to account for the loss of light the 3D process imposes. I should note however that most of my 3D theatrical experiences have been less than perfect so maybe it’s just me. If you’ve loved what you’ve seen from the current state of the technology then you might appreciate it here as well.

In between explorations of the cave’s secrets, Herzog talks to the wide ranging group of scientists who are studying them. The conversations are often interesting, but this being Herzog they tend to be scattered and random. A deeper probing and a more explicit connecting of the dots would’ve been nice. Who were these people who painted in the dark? You’re left with more questions than answers, but perhaps that was Herzog’s intention.

Drawbacks aside, the flickering window Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens on the dawn of human culture can’t be underestimated. Herzog captures the experience as well as he probably could have under the circumstances and the images and fragments he’s collected finally achieve a strange dreamlike quality. Perhaps it is best appreciated if you don’t try to force it to fit your expectations, but simply let Herzog be Herzog instead.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. UK / Germany / France / USA 2011. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. Cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger. Music score composed by Ernst Reijseger. Edited by Joe Bini and Maya Hawke. 1 hour 35 minutes. MPAA rated G. 3.5 stars (out of 5)

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