The new Werner Herzog documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is comparatively thin on the cuckoo German's trademark perversity—except when you consider that he has made a 3-D documentary about motionless drawings on rocks. They are, admittedly, very old drawings on very unique rocks: Sketched in charcoal on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in southern France, the 32,000-year-old paintings are the earliest ever found, preserved by a rockslide that sealed the artwork (and many bear bones) until 1994, when it was uncovered and immediately locked up again for preservation. Still, there are no flying dragons. You will have to settle for woolly rhinos, which doesn't strike me as too painful a concession. Science, even at a remove, trumps fantasy.
Herzog's most recent triumph, you may recall, also involved unlocking a Cage—Nicolas, to be exact, who roamed bug-eyed through Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans until slumping exhausted against an aquarium tank filled with primordial-looking sharks and grouper, and wondering: "Do fish have dreams?" Paired with that movie's alligator and iguana POV cams, that question might have seemed like a dry joke—but with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the director keeps doggedly at it. This documentary is the most straightforward project Herzog has helmed (parts of it wouldn't feel out of place on PBS), which makes it easier to take his speculations at something like face value. He is gazing at a creature less prehistoric than the fish, but his concern is the same: "Do they dream?" he asks of the cavemen, comparing a computer chart of their art locations to the Manhattan phone book. "Do they cry at night? You will never know from the phone directory."
Actually, what is most endearing about the drawings is their suggestion that Paleolithic man, much like a tribe of elementary-school girls, dreamed mostly of horses. There are also some bears on the walls, some bulls, and a lot of rhinos. The images roll out from the shadows, rippling under headlamps—and suddenly the rationale for filming in 3-D makes perfect sense. This is the closest most of us will ever come to these paintings, and we should be able to gain as tactile an experience as possible. Herzog never descends into vulgar tricks like animating the drawings, but he points out how a number of the animals have been given eight or more legs, so they seem to be in motion, an effect that might have been amplified by the flickering of torchlight. Then he cuts to Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadow in Swing Time. That long leap feels intuitively right: As one researcher notes, some overlapping creatures were drawn five millennia apart—less than half the time has passed between us and Jesus Christ than between those two rhinos.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is filled with Herzog's usual roster of deadpan eccentrics—a master perfumer who sniffs for cavern openings, a man in pelts who plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" on an ancient flute, like he's having a Paleolithic Osama bin Laden death party—but that vast span of time begins to gnaw at you, until Chauvet Cave begins to seem as far away as the moon in Avatar. (And just as fantastic: Both landscapes are vertiginous and, in Herzog's Teutonic phrasing, "Wagnerian.") Herzog's subjects have tried to civilize the jungle (Fitzcarraldo) and flee civilization (Grizzly Man), but none of them are able to experience nature as natural. At the very end of this film, Herzog offers an epilogue featuring albino mutant crocodiles living in a greenhouse warmed by the steam of a nuclear plant. And, sure, this is another calculatedly oddball moment featuring reptiles, but it also begins to explain what Herzog has been doing with his most recent films: He has always been fascinated by our vicious animal past, and now he wonders what mutated dreams must come when we are no longer wild at heart.
80 SEE IT: Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens in 3-D this Friday at Cinema 21.