Production still from Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Production still from Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary
Cave of Forgotten Dreams

After an impressive week of documentary premieres on television — first there’s Monday’s Stonewall Uprising, about the uprising that launched the gay rights movement, and then there’s Tuesday’s Marwencol, about a man with an unusual form of self-therapy — there’s a great reason to get off the couch. Hitting theaters on Friday, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is one of the most unusual documentary films you’ll ever hope to see.

That said, it’s not for everyone. It’s a documentary that plums all sorts of philosophical depths through the poetic musings of its director, Werner Herzog, while utilizing 3-D technology. Like I said, it’s not for everyone.

I’m fascinated by Herzog, the 68-year-old German director who’s been making documentaries for some 40 years and who recently managed to crank out two terrific films: 2005’s Grizzly Man, a documentary about a man who takes his love for bears too far, and 2006’s Rescue Dawn, a fictional feature about a prisoner-of-war escape in Laos. Herzog’s films tend to depict the depths of men in extreme circumstances. He steers away from the light stuff.

With Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog goes deep again, this time into a French cave where pristine 32,000-year-old drawings, the oldest to date, were discovered. Narrating the film with his wonderfully solemn accent, and accompanied by resonant string instruments, Herzog urges his audience to share the wonder of this incredible discovery. The drawings from what has been dubbed the Chauvet Cave are indeed marvelous: so old, yet so clear, and created in a manner that suggests an intelligence and ability that is hard to fathom. Wrapping one’s mind around the passage of 32,000 years is enough of a mental trip, but to do so while exploring these caves thanks to the latest in 3-D filmmaking technology (which I never found annoying and always in service of the film) is awesome.

Alas, the film did have one baffling fault: it lacked proper context. It would have been informative to provide a timeline of the past 32,000 years to give us the correct appreciation of those drawings. I assume Herzog had other things in mind than helping viewers make sense of this prehistoric art. Indeed, he wants us to be in awe, and to revel in their power.

His postscript about albino crocodiles (I didn’t see that one coming) was yet further evidence that this is a poetic ride into one man’s musings rather than a fact-finding mission. Still, I would count myself as a fan of the film.

I’d love to recommend following the film with a beer with the director — who must be one hell of a drinking companion, considering his ability to make narrative leaps from notions of a universal human heart to Baywatch — but in his absence, a long philosophical conversation about the nature of existence with a friend will do.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen