all Werner Herzog films, is in some measure about Werner Herzog. In this case, the old boy shows up often in front of the camera, and rather than choose a distinguished narrator like Morgan Freeman or Helen Mirren to convey his awe, we are treated to his own wizened, accented croak. And whether in spite of this or because of it, the film is a triumph.
It's probably true of all great filmmakers that their movies are, in some measure, about themselves (Scorsese springs to mind). But Herzog has a knack for intertwining his subject matter with his own idiosyncratic vision – one of the many films about him is, after all, entitled I Am My Films. Herzog and his camera crews have a way of becoming part of the story, enhancing the viewing with sometimes apocryphal tales of the arduous shoot.
Herzog's methods have become legendary, whether it's trekking to the rim of an active volcano (La Soufrière), schlepping his entire crew up to the source waters of the Amazon (Aguirre, the Wrath of God), hypnotizing his onscreen actors (Heart of Glass), going to extreme lengths to mollify a disgruntled all-dwarf cast (Even Dwarves Started Small), going to extreme lengths to stare down a prima donna star (Aguirre, again), or most famously, literally – and disastrously – dragging a ship over a mountain, just like his megalomaniac title character (Fitzcarraldo),
After that glorious fiasco, it's a wonder anyone gives him financing anymore, but we're all the richer that someone did. And Herzog's reputation has recovered sufficiently (Oscar noms always help) that the History Channel and the French government thought it would be a good idea for him to be granted filming priveleges inside the amazing Chauvet Cave, site of the world's oldest known cave paintings.
Herzog's sense of wonder at the "abyss of time" represented by these 32,000-year-old images is palpable. Though the scientists and art historians he interviews have interesting things to say, the paintings themselves are the true star of the film. With their delicate, sweeping lines, subtle shading and the detailed, emotive empathy with the animals depicted, any contemporary artist would be proud to have created such images. And the evocative choral score by Ernst Reijseger masterfully reflects the majesty of the site.
To Herzog, this stunning artwork represents "the dawn of the modern human soul," and he asks his scientists what is perhaps the central question in all his work: "What is human-ness?" And from exploring the world of the deaf and blind to the solitary work of a grizzly bear afficionado, this has concerned Herzog throughout his career. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, after years of pointing his camera at extraordinary sights, he's found a subject that both illuminates and deepens this mystery.