You know the old saw: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, when you're one of the world's most thoughtful filmmakers, maybe everything looks like cinema.
With Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog has taken material that could have made for a really spiffy episode of Nova and created a very personal documentary, one of the most moving, absorbing films I've seen in some time. His subject is the stunning prehistoric paintings on the wall of the Chauvet Cave, in France, and the 32,000-year-old artworks prompt him to muse - with his images, and in voiceover narration - not just on the astounding global treasure that is Chauvet, but on the nature of humanity, consciousness and, yes, art, including film.
With wondrous delicacy and wit, the Paleolithic painters captured dynamism and movement in their depictions of animals. That reminds Herzog of movies. So, too, does the play of shadows on the cave walls. Herzog expands on the cinema analogy by sharing a 30-second excerpt from the 1936 film Swing Time, in which Fred Astaire dances in front of silhouettes that follow his movements. It's a funny, slightly nutty choice. You probably wouldn't see that on Nova!
Herzog's time in the cave was limited, because the French government has restricted access to Chauvet since it was discovered intact in 1994. Herzog makes a virtue of the limitation by documenting how he learned to film the paintings under difficult conditions. Early scenes are from his first visit, and they are unsteadily shot and lit. The film concludes with stunning, beautifully lit pans across the paintings, which mainly depict the horses, ibexes, mammoths and rhinos that people encountered in those days. (It's marvelous to contemplate rhinos in France.) These sequences are accompanied by Ernst Reijseger's haunting score of organ, cellos and voices.
From time to time Herzog emerges from the cave to talk to scientists and other experts who study it. An interesting bunch, they include an archeologist who was a circus performer. But the real star is the paintings, and the film is best when it simply lets us gaze at them.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams was shot in 3D, and the format is supposed to really let you see how painters incorporated the uneven surfaces of the cave walls. I can't speak to that, because I haven't seen the film in 3D. Sundance is showing it in 2D, and that's disappointing. But even in two dimensions, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a beauty.