Monday, January 02, 2012


Boldly going where man's ancestors went before

By Edward Copeland
Werner Herzog's voice has embedded itself inside my brain. Each time I watch a documentary he directed and inevitably narrated, it takes longer to shake his German-accented English voiceover from my mind. A similar thing happened when I once listened to John Updike read one of his books on tape. After that, every time I read something by the great writer, I heard the prose in his voice. It's not an exact parallel with Herzog, since I only heard Updike when I read Updike. Once Cave of Forgotten Dreams finished, though Herzog's narration ceased to emanate from my TV, for some time afterward and as I write this, his voice continues to echo in my head.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams shares a thematic similarity with Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World except instead of looking at our least-explored continent, Herzog gains access to an ancient cave in southern France, sealed for thousands of years, that gives fascinating insight into what man's ancestors saw and could do in terms of paintings and sculptures believed to be the oldest ever found. The Chauvet Cave, named for Jean-Marie Chauvet, one of three cave explorers who followed an air current during an expedition in 1994 and found the cave apparently sealed to humans for more than 20,000 years.

France seized custody of the prehistoric site to prevent degradation, installing a locked steel door to bar access. The government allowed Herzog access under strict conditions, letting him film no more than four hours a day and if anyone had to leave during that time, the shoot stopped for the day. Making it more challenging, Herzog, who generally dismisses the need for 3D, felt it would make the experience more exciting for the viewer here (alas, Hugo remains the only 3D film I've seen since the gimmick's comeback). However, the narrow passages of the Chauvet Cave made the equipment necessary for 3D filming impossible so a special 3D camera had to be designed.

While some dispute the dating of what's been found in the cave, (Who wants to quibble between 20,000 and 32,000 years ago when either figure will set creationists' hair on fire?) even in two-dimensions the paintings astound. Depictions of animals extinct or evolved, some drawn in a succession that with the dim light almost make them appear to be the precursor of cinema. Handprints indicating an ancestor with a deformed finger is used as a map to trace the journey of the artist and the cave. The two sculptures found even indicate early depictions of a human-like form.

Herzog, always a jokester at heart, throws in an epilogue that questions both what our next step in the history of the world might be as well as whether France might see the tourist potential in this great find.

Herzog used to make some of the most interesting foreign language features around, especially when his stormy acting muse, Klaus Kinski, still lived to produce films ranging from the idiosyncratic (Woyzeck) to the astounding (Fitzcarraldo), from the one-of-a-kind (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) to a remake of a classic that became that rare classic remake itself (Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht).

Following Kinski's death in November 1991, Herzog turned almost exclusively to documentary filmmaking. Nonfiction works always held a place in Herzog's repertoire — both before and during his days with Kinski — but most were shorts made for television with theatrical features dominating his directing career. From the start of Herzog's feature career with Signs of Life in 1968 through his final film with Kinski (Cobra Verde) in 1987, Herzog directed 14 documentaries, all shorts except for three feature-length, only two of which were made for theatrical release.

Since 1987, Herzog only has directed five feature films (one of which was a fictionalized version of one of the documentaries he made in that time). With the exception of directing episodes of three separate German TV series, all his work in that time period has been on nonfiction filmmaking — shorts and feature-length, for television and theaters. What's even more fascinating is that his documentaries such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams prove far more interesting than the handful of fictional features that barely get released and, when they do, turn out to be flat-out disasters such as The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans starring Nicolas Cage.

If he can keep finding topics such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the loss of Herzog the fiction filmmaker with Herzog the documentarian might make for a worthy swap.

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