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As much as I love Herzog's feature films, it's in his documentaries
that I feel he really excels and this one is no exception. Regardless
of being faced with extremely restricted access to the Chauvet caves,
the subject matter and Herzog's unique angle on story telling make this
one of the most compelling documentaries I've ever seen. His
documentaries always have a way of moving me, be it in the passion and
determination in the people he studies like Dr Graham Dorrington and
Timothy Treadwell or in the sense of awe inspired by the environments
he focuses on like in Encounters at The End of The World and this one
was no different, right from the start I was overcome with the beauty
of the caves and the drawings on the walls.
The context and hypotheses given by the interviewees only helps to deepen the sense of wonder as each section of the cave is discussed in turn by everyone from the chief scientist to art historians, to a master perfumer, and in typical Herzog fashion, many of them are quite eccentric and add some humorous touches along the way. Throughout the film, these specialists, along with Herzog's narration really set your mind racing and I went to bed last night still thinking about the cave's mysteries.
The sign of a good film is never wanting it to end and during his last visit to the cave, the film fades to black a number of times, each time left me praying that we were going to be allowed to see just a bit more. Films like this help to open your eyes and remind you that outside the boring drudgery of our 9-5 existence, there is a whole world of beauty and mystery for us to explore and by leaving us with the allegorical example of crocodiles living in a nearby artificial tropical habitat, Herzog leaves you asking questions about the way we lead our modern life that will last long after you've left the cinema.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having only seen "Aguirre: Wrath of God", my Herzog experience was
rather limited. I was excited to see this film because of it's
fascinating subject material and because I had enjoyed my previous
Herzog experience so much.
Now to the movie: The cave is incredible. They remark how fresh all of the art looks, and it's preservation and immediacy is truly astounding to reflect on over the course of the film. The film notes that certain pictures inches apart could have been drawn 5000 years apart. It really blows apart your comprehension of human history and time.
The narrative around the cave, however, ended up being an aimless collection of some facts, lots of speculation, and airy fluff about the "human spirit" that couldn't quite get to the core of what it wanted to say. You leave feeling like you've learned almost nothing about the cave or its people in the end. Twenty minutes of haunting, slow-panning shots of cave artwork would have had the exact same effect. No hyperbole intended.
This is the first Herzog feature I've seen on the big screen and I had
read a few reviews on here before going. It's worth noting that I went
to the Greenwich Picturehouse cinema in London. The screen, seating,
sound and facilities were first class. I'd urge you to see this
somewhere with top quality projection and sound.
This is a film about some French caves that contain paintings and markings made up to 32,000 years ago. Herzog documents the difficulties in viewing these astonishing sights and the further problems in filming them. As he seems to be able to do in any situation, Werner finds the most interesting, possibly obsessed and eccentric people to help illustrate the remarkable nature of this cave network.
The film is in 3D. A special 3D camera was made due to the constricted nature of the caves and the early part of the film was shot on a non-professional camera. A few reviews have complained of noise from low light dancing in 3D before their eyes. I saw none of this at all - in fact the 3D was really well handled and didn't detract from the subject matter at all. The undulation in the rocks are part of the paintings - the people that painted them used the contours as the shape of the things they drew. All that said, I don't know how well the 3D will translate to the small screen.
The sound is entrancing. The score is haunting and majestic, much like the French scenery we see and swoop over. A few people have complained of the heartbeat noise that is heard over the "silence" that we're told to experience but I felt it worked well, even on the second occurrence.
There are some odd moments, keeping to Herzog's style, including a crocodile-infested biosphere on the Rhone which Herzog uses to describe the human impact on the environment in the area around the caves. A few of the cave-investigating scientists are odd too, but I imagine the Bavarian director's questions often create an impression of abnormality in the sanest of subjects. Some of the interviews reminded me of The White Diamond or the friends of Tim Treadwell in Grizzly Man.
I'm delighted to have seen a Herzog film on the big screen and felt that this was the equal of "Encounters" or "Grizzly Man". It doesn't have the edgy feel of La Soufriere but that's to its credit. Go see it if you can but make sure it's at the best screen you can.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I went to see this movie over the weekend, and it was really one of the
most amazing, and bizarre things I've ever seen. Werner Herzog takes a
tiny camera crew into the famous Chauvet caves in France, giving us a
glimpse of the amazingly preserved cave paintings I've only seen in
text books up 'til now. Audiences get to view, en masse, a very famous
location that they will almost certainly never be able to see in person
because of the tight restrictions put in place by the French government
to protect its pristine condition. And, better yet, if you see it in
the theater like I did, you can see it in 3-D. This sounds like a
really cheesy gimmick, but I assure you that the effect really enhances
the experience, allowing us to really appreciate how the painters
incorporated the natural curves of the wall into their drawings.
All this is pretty cool. But, then we have to endure Werner Herzog's own, particularly zany presentation of the material. He's got a pretty big reputation as a director, but I get the feeling he's getting a bit more eccentric as he ages. First of all, the film is about fifty percent too long. Everyone in the audience was squirming in their seats at about the sixty-minute mark. I understand that one's film needs to be a certain length in order for it to be taken seriously as a feature film, and Herzog achieves this length in one of the most amusing and tedious ways possible. There's only so much footage you can show of the actual cave and the art inside before the footage starts to become a bit redundant. So Herzog calls in a fleet of various "experts" to weigh in, and comment on various aspects of the cave. He's tracked down an assortment of the most delightfully odd, local crackpots. There's an "experimental" archaeologist, who gets into the sciency mood by dressing up in anachronistic and geographically inaccurate fur pelts. There's the master perfumer/spelologer, who looks for new caves by sniffing cracks in the ground for that "cavey" smell. The vintner/anthropologist who enjoys speculating on Paleolithic behavior and mythology, and favors historical reenactments. And, all these experts are pretty visibly pleased with themselves, grinning into the camera after giving us little demonstrations of their "science." It's all pretty endearing. And, these characters are all so very French.
The images of the cave are all pretty amazing. We really get to appreciate how perfectly the artwork has been preserved with the cave being sealed off for so many thousands of years. We can almost ignore all the strange "authorities" Herzog has marching through the film at such regular intervals. But, the tone of the movie was finally set in my mind by Herzog's wonderfully insane postscript. It's a meditation on humanity and culture, nuclear power and albino alligators. The moral conclusions he draws are pretty questionable, and the science is pure quackery. All you can really do is sit there with that wide-eyed stare, wondering if this guy is really serious, or if he's playing some big joke. Either would kind of be wonderful, but of course, for very different reasons.
I've had really high hopes for 3D since Avatar impressed me last year but have only ever been disappointed since. All this retro fitting, remakes and flickering action sequences has really started to bug me. So, when a few months back I heard Herzog was working on a 3D documentary film, I couldn't help but grin. Finally, I thought, a 3D film that isn't going to be a bloated blockbuster. This films subject The Chauvet Cave in southern France was only discovered in 1994. It contains perhaps the most extraordinary array of cave paintings dated from between 23,000 to 30,000 years ago as well as extraordinary calcite formations, stalagmites/stalactites and ancient bones of creatures long migrated from the continent. The cave was apparently sealed by a landslide many millennia ago which has preserved everything perfectly. It's really something special to see and the sense of great privilege is conveyed by Werner early on in his very proud introduction. He is the only filmmaker to ever have been allowed access to the cave and throughout I couldn't help picturing everyone at the BBC and Discovery Channel shrugging jealously. The picture starts with some really beautiful shots of the French vinyards and mountains near the cave. It's presentation is what we've come to expect and it's instantly engaging. Long roving shots from a remote flying camera, hand-held POV's up mountain paths. The problems only start when we get inside the cave. Werner explains that the equipment that they could take in has to be very limited and they use non-professional camera gear. This isn't necessarily the problem though, we can take it with a pinch of salt. The real problem is in the 3D. First of all there is little light in the cave and so the gain is pushed into the camera signal and there's a lot of digital noise, especially in the dark areas, of which there are a lot. Now, noise/grain is always forgivable, until it starts dancing around in 3D, then it gives you a terrible headache. A lot of the shots are lit solely by a moving torch light and the constant re-focusing of your eyes only strains them further. However. the cave is quite amazing and we get to see it in detail. Later in the film some much better lit 3d shots are shown that really should have been used throughout. Footage of the cave is interspersed with interviews with various characters. The decision to use a rather generic voice over in place of subtitles for these interviews was certainly a small misstep and dilutes it a touch, but the film is not without it's moments. There are a couple of hilarious exchanges where Werner has typically cut someone off too early or left them hanging when they have finished. I do get the sense that he has become self aware and when chuckles are raised as Werner describes a cave painting as "Proto-cinema" I detected at least a hint of self parody, which I don't mind at all. The film winds up with the most spectacularly detailed shots of all, they do linger on a bit too long and I think the back half of the film would benefit from a cut of about 10 minutes. Having said all this, despite the technical distractions, the film is a semi-triumph in the way Encounters at the end of the world was. Some really great personal touches and a fascinating subject, but for god's sake see it in glorious 2D. 7/10
I loved this movie -- I mean, I was just enchanted. It was everything
I'd hoped it would be and more. My friends whined about this and that
-- the music was discordant, the camera-work was too shaky, what was
the deal with the albino crocodiles, etc. etc. and so forth. Bleh. What
do they know?
Werner Herzog has filmed a 3-D documentary at Chauvet Cave in southern France, location of the oldest known artwork on the planet. Surely you've seen pictures? The cave walls are covered with prehistoric renderings of bison and bears and lions and horses and woolly rhinoceroses and more -- all drawn in a similar style over 30,000 years ago with the sure hand of accomplished artists skilled in techniques of shading and placement and composition. Astonishingly, while these days we seem to move from realism to impressionism to cubism to whateverism at the drop of a decade, scientists seem certain that some of the stylistically identical Chauvet Cave images were created as much as 5,000 years apart.
And what wonderful images they are! Even on the pages of the National Geographic the lions roar ferociously and the horses neigh in terror and the rhinoceroses battle to the death while the bison gallop away in a prehistoric stampede. But Herzog has given us more than a mere magazine can manage -- he's brought life to animals in Chauvet Cave through the magic of the 3-D process.
Yes, I know, 3-D sucks. But in this film 3-D isn't just a gimmick -- the process actually pays off. Of course I'd seen 2-D pictures of Chauvet Cave, but until seeing this film I'd never understood how much the walls of the cave undulate, and more important, how the paintings take advantage of all those curvy surfaces. The muscles of the lion ripple with the cave walls; the body of the bison is placed perfectly so that as the rock turns at a sharp angle, the animal's head can be drawn to face the viewer -- in 3-D the cave seems miraculously to come to life.
Chauvet Cave was discovered in 1994 and for a time the public could visit. But it soon became apparent that human intrusions were changing the atmosphere of the cave, as mold began growing on the walls, and the precious art that had survived in pristine peace for thirty millennia was being threatened. Now the French government has wisely, blessedly closed the place to the public. Herzog and his crew were allowed to enter only for a limited time with limited gear, and from the sound of it this filmed record may be the best we'll see for quite a while.
I was fascinated by the whole thing and I wish I had a way to thank Werner Herzog personally for taking me to a magical place I regret I'll never be able to visit. I think that theme park they're planning to build nearby -- the one at which they'll recreate the cave for tourists -- probably wouldn't do much for me. This film, though, was a very welcome, quite unforgettable experience.
This documentary managed to take a subject that is wondrous and
thought-provoking seem completely and utterly boring. The film spends
entirely too much time explaining how limited the access to the very
delicate caves are, and provides almost no content for ones mind to
grab hold of and explore. There is nowhere near enough information that
puts the paintings in context. If I were a layperson viewing the film
with absolutely no knowledge about prehistoric humans, the only
information I would gather from the film is that it was much colder
30,000 years ago than it is today, and that there is currently a
nuclear power plant not too far away from the site of the cave. Nothing
about what may have inspired the prehistoric artists, what his or her
motives may have been, or what techniques they may have used, are
present in the film.
And don't get me started on the long, drawn out sweeps of the paintings themselves. I get it Werner, it was an awe-inspiring experience to physically be in the caves, but panning slowly over the same painting for 2 minutes straight without saying much about it won't get me to understand your sense of wonder. (Here comes a paraphrase...) "Do these paintings perhaps represent the birth of the human spirit?" No, Werner, you silly goose, they just offer an opportunity for someone very obviously ignorant of the subject to make vague poetic phrasings in a very weak attempt to invoke a sense of wonder about how far back our human heritage goes.
The "experimental archaeologist" seemed like a pretty cool guy. He played the star-spangled banner on a DIY flute made of bone in what was probably a homemade pair of deer pants, fur boots, and a very snazzy long sleeve fur tunic.
Overall this documentary would have been satisfactory if it were 1 hour shorter (i.e. roughly 30 minutes long). It offers very little information, repetitive footage, and an aimless narrative at best. I've read many of the reviews written about the film on this illustrious IMDb website, and most of the authors make more inspiring extrapolations about the content than Mr. Herzog was able to. Somewhere deep in an undiscovered cave, a caveman is turning in his grave.
No one shoots 32,000 year-old cave paintings like Werner Herzog. First
off, they're not allowed. The storied German filmmaker was recently
granted unprecedented access to Chauvet caves in south France, which
house the earliest known human paintings. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is
the latest in his library of offbeat and mostly fascinating
documentaries. Of course, Herzog's unique perspective is as much a draw
as the subject matter itself the man could make a movie about dirt
and I'd be the first in line.
Fortunately, he's dealing with no such handicap here. The paintings that line Chauvet are beautiful, perfectly preserved, and enigmatic. But it's their technique that's most impressive. The conception that early man doodled only rudimentary stick figures and geometric animals is a fallacy, as the craft on display in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is staggering. So much so that early analysis doubted the authenticity of the drawings. Sealed beneath a thick layer of calcite, however, carbon dating proved them genuine.
In truth, there are no depictions of man on the walls of Chauvet. Instead, most panels appear an altar to the animal kingdom, with awesome recreations of bison, horses, lions, and now extinct wooly rhinos. Painted from memory in a dark recess of the cave, the images could only be seen by firelight. Art historians speculate that in those flickering flames, the drawings might have appeared to take life, which Herzog equates to a sort of "proto-cinema." Also of special interest to the director is a bison with a woman's body painted onto the curvature of a stalactite.
Complete with bizarre metaphors, inner musings, and tangential conversation, there can be no mistaking the author of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At times, the filmmaker even seems aware that he's being Werner Herzog. Not every one of his digressions proves equally illuminating, but you can't really complain about Herzog being Herzog in a Herzog documentary.
Funded in part by the History Channel, his input is infinitely more valuable considering the sterile TV special this might have been. His knack for compelling autobiography proves one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, and rather than work around his crew and equipment, Herzog mines drama from their creative difficulties. The team was permitted inside for just a few brief hours per day, and restricted to two foot wide metal walkways once there. The many precautions and restrictions protect the integrity of the cave floor, and the still fresh footprints and animal remains that have survived there for so long.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn't Herzog's best work by any stretch of the imagination, but at almost 70, it's amazing he's still up for the Indiana Jones routine. From the Peruvian rainforest in his youth to Antarctica and now some light spelunking, Herzog is one of the most traveled filmmakers alive. That he can still churn out progressive, stimulating entertainment is a rarity among artists his age.
And as obtuse as it may be, Herzog's ideology is invaluable. Through his eyes, Chauvet cave is a wonder to behold; he captures the transcendent beauty of the paintings and ruminates on the lives of their anonymous creators. Though sometimes he overstates his own eccentricity, the through line of art as an essential human quality circumvents his digressions. Our ability to appreciate the creative output of a society millennia removed from our own is a powerful concept. Here's hoping folks from the year 34,000 appreciate Herzog as much as we do.
Don't miss auteur Werner Herzog's memorable documentary, Cave of
Forgotten Dreams, about the French Chauvet Cave. It contains the
earliest extant art work of humanity from over 30,000 years ago.
Paleolithic renderings of animals such as horses, lions, and cave
bears, some in motion as if early filmmaking ("a form of proto-cinema,"
Herzog says) are rendered so lifelike by the film that I'm satisfied to
have gotten as close as is possible without damaging the environment.
With special permission from the culture ministry and only a few hours per day, Herzog takes a non-professional 3-D camera and a few scientists and crew into the cave, which was sealed by a landslide some 20, 000 years ago and therefore in pristine shape. So careful are the French that they plan to construct a theme park with exact reproduction of the Cave in order to satisfy the public's natural interest in seeing the drawings but yet keep them from spoiling the treasures with their breaths.
3-D aids appreciation of the curvatures of the caves and the rich dimensions of the drawings, about 400 of them, and the cave-bear fossils and scratches. Ernst Reijseger's understated orchestration complements the lyrical and mysterious world that Herzog's voice cradles.
Because no one is allowed to walk outside the small walkway and few humans will ever enter, an eerie Egyptian tomb-like atmosphere pervades, captured by Herzog's pensive, wistful ruminations about mankind. For the director of such eccentric films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, both about mysteriously powerful humans, and similarly the documentary Grizzly, about an odd bear lover, this film is evidence of the filmmaker's wide-ranging zest for the inscrutable spiritual roots of secular achievement and madness.
Of course, there's the romantic take by the French scientists and narrator Herzog, who all describe hearing the voices of these ancient homo-sapien artists echo in the chambers. Herzog's inscrutable post script, perfectly in character with this out-there director involves nuclear reactors, warm water, and thriving alligators. When you figure out his meaning of the doppelganging albino alligators, write me with your answer, for I'm still trying to figure it out.
Meanwhile, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a superior documentary with the right combination of visual clarity and authorial insight to make everlastingly memorable the forgotten dreams of our ancestors and ourselves.
The key scene in Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams comes when he
is interviewing a young archaeologist. The archaeologist is part of a
research team investigating a cave in France known to have the oldest
cave art done by humans. The man says that after he saw the lifelike
and almost modern looking animal paintings done 32,000 years ago, he
dreamt about the animals coming to life and also on the walls. This
then is how imagination and something like the soul get from there to
here: from early man tens of thousands of years ago to modern man in
the 21st century.
The early cave painters probably dreamed of the animals they saw on the land, and then from those dreams and observations they painted them. We dream about our own lives, but the representations of life and everything that we have produced as the human race--books, plays, novels, sculpture, music, architecture, painting, movies--had their analogue in this cave. Here then is also the beginnings of art. Makes you wonder how people thousands of years from now will see us. Will they take a look at our pop culture, our Glees and blockbuster superhero movies and think we were like that? Besides being a spiritual experience, this movie is an elegy for real art and real nature that defines us, and that in this very commercial age, we are slowly or rapidly losing.
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