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Werner Herzog’s biggest fans probably don’t like his films being divided into two categories, but I tend to separate his documentaries from his fictional films rather sharply in my mind. Though I tend to think his very best films are of the fictional variety ( Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, though ‘fictional’ may be the wrong word considering how many of his films are at least based on true events), but I find myself more consistently enthralled and entertained by his documentaries ( My Best Fiend, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Grizzly Man). Herzog’s work with the documentary format is among the most personable in the field, and at his best it’s impossible to mistake his work for any other documentarian. The best prolific documentary filmmakers – Errol Morris, Martin Scorsese, at one time Michael Moore – usually have a signature style, and are part of the discussion without drawing awkward attention to themselves. Herzog’s best documentaries usually center around a single human subject, and his warm, stoic, and consistent personality (not to mention his incredibly understated sense of humour) helps bring his audience into that subject’s world without too much initial judgment.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Cave of Forgotten Dreams does not revolve around a single subject, or even a living group of people, it revolves around the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in France, where the earliest cave paintings were discovered in 1994. So right off the bat, it’s missing a twinge of that Herzog brand of documentary magic. The ‘History Channel Films’ logo at the top of the film is another clue into the fact that this particular documentary is going to be similar to the kind of thing you’d usually see on Cable television between episodes of Mythbusters and Pawn Stars. The scientist and crew are not integral parts of the film, and for the most part are overlooked in favour of beautiful images and hard facts. Herzog is still an important part of the production, though. Besides the fact that the director appears on screen and acts as narrator, the general tone is similar to his other films. But for large portions of the Cave of Forgotten Dreams he seems uncomfortable with how to deal with the material. He pushes a grim sense of dread early in the film for little reason other than the fact that he’s Werner Herzog, and that’s what he does. The process of initially entering the cage is genuinely frightening and claustrophobic. Soon enough, however, the director stops struggling with tone, as he sets the most beautiful images of the cave stoically against Ernst Reijseger’s mournful/rapturous classical score, creating a definitively artistic notion most made for cable documentaries usually wouldn’t touch. Later, as an interviewer he asks questions in his usual poetic style, and in interviewing the scientists he’s able to better personalize the film, and bring it back around to his normal style of filmmaking. About 30 minutes into the runtime the scientific value of the cave findings finally began to dawn on me, and I finally started to forget I was watching a Werner Herzog film.

If we’re going to simplify this experience we have to admit that Herzog is kind of making this film as an excuse to experiment with modern 3D camera technology. I’m not trying to cheapen the experience, but according to most of the interviews that ran around the time the film was released in theaters Herzog was sort of ‘pushed’ into using 3D cameras by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. He didn’t like the idea at first, but was eventually sold when he realized what the technology could do for this particular film. The funniest thing about the interviews is how much Herzog ended up not liking the process, despite the apparent success of the experiment, and made brilliant comments about the purely scientific problems with the process. Unfortunately I didn’t see the film in theaters, and do not have 3D capabilities at home, which leaves me at a pretty sizable disadvantage in writing this review. From what I understand Herzog and Zeitlinger put a lot of effort into incorporating the technology, and unlike so many films that are 3D enhanced as an afterthought, an accurate critical look at the film requires a sizable critique of the 3D cinematography. Looking at the film in 2D I’m surprised by how clearly handheld the production is, and imagine the constant shake was a bit of a problem in theaters. It’s not that the cinematography is unattractive (outside the early stuff, which can’t help but look haphazard), it’s just not as smooth as I was expecting. The animated, laser point internal map of the cave creates a definite sense of immersion, even in flat 2D.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


There are very few times I wish I had a 3D set-up. This is one of those times. As I said in the feature part of this review, the 3D enhancement seems to be something like a third of the film’s critical value. There’s also the issue of size. Cave of Forgotten Dreams begs to be seen extra large, or at the very least life-sized. But I’m going to work with what I’ve got.  Early in the film the 3D rig (apparently attached to a remote control helicopter) moves slowly towards the cave, and the transfer does not handle the smooth movement very effectively. The frame updates in sections, which is a common side effect of interlaced transfers. At this point I was frightened that the transfer had been mislabeled as 1080p, but this problem is done away with pretty quickly by the following scene. Other problems occasionally arise in its place however, the most unfortunate of which is a digital blocking effect that smoothes out some of the details. The brightest outside shots also suffer a bit of shimmer. Scenes within the cave are occasionally quite rough looking thanks to less than stellar lighting conditions, and I assume that the digital artefacts in these sections are unavoidable. These include everything from low-level noise and blocking effects to ghosting. The more stoically staged moments are the ones that give me pause, and these leave me suspecting that perhaps squeezing both the 3D and 2D versions of the film onto one disc wasn’t the best idea. Colour quality is left a little muted (especially scenes outside the cave), but I’m assuming are relatively naturalistic, but hues are well separated (even when the blocking becomes an issue), and the more vibrant elements (usually clothing) are set sharply against the more common blacks and browns. This is largely a successful transfer, but the ebb and flow of overall quality leads me to compare it to a really good HD broadcast.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Really, is there any better sound in the world than Werner Herzog’s voice? No, there isn’t. He should read every audio book ever made as far as I’m concerned, and I could watch his episodes of The Boondocks and The Simpsons on a loop. His narration is arguably the most important aural element on this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. This makes for a largely centric affair, and it’s worth noting that Herzog doesn’t use subtitles for the French scientist, rather he uses more narrators, who speak over the scientists that don’t speak in English (he wants us to look at the images, not read subtitles). All these voices, especially Herzog’s, sound just fine, and remain effectively centered. There isn’t a lot in the way of sound effects, outside the most basic noises trudged up while walking through a cave. At one point the crew is asked to remain quiet and listen to the silence of the cave, and Herzog adds a nice, bassy heartbeat into the mix, but for the most part he avoids dealing with theatrical sounds (which might have been fun given the echo effects that come with spelunking). The surround and stereo channels are mostly left to Ernst Reijseger’s cello, flute, organ and choral heavy score, which aurally floats very lightly and effectively somewhere in the center of the viewing room.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


The disc’s only extra, outside of a trailer, and trailers for other IFC releases, is Ode to the Dawn of Man (39:20, HD), Herzog’s mini-documentary chronicling the recording of Reijseger score. The small band of musicians recorded in a small church for ideal acoustics, and Reijseger himself played the cello parts. This is a strictly fly-on-the wall affair, with only a few titles to explain what is going on for much of the runtime. It’s a bit dry, to be frank, though Reijseger’s interview concerning his weird, extra deep cello is pretty interesting. And that guy can play the hell out of that bastard.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn’t quite what I tend to want from Werner Herzog, but it is a very good standalone documentary, on a rather fascinating subject. My biggest complaint is that I’m not sure I think Herzog quite hammers down the importance of the cave’s discovery for viewers (like myself) less familiar with prehistoric sciences. I can’t recall any explicit mention of the cave featuring the earliest known paintings. This Blu-ray features both the 3D and 2D versions of the film, and I was only able to review the 2D version, which is unfortunate given the care and thought that was put into the 3D cinematography. The 2D image quality is a pretty hit and miss, the DTS-HD MA sound is thin, but well represented, and the extras are minimal. I noticed that the film also appeared on the Netflix instant queue before I got this review finished, so Netflix members with time should definitely give it a look.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.