Werner Herzog's 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams': 3-D Done Right

The German director's latest documentary shows the technology can be used to do more than boost ticket sales of big-budget blockbusters


HIstory Films

When I first heard that German director Werner Herzog's latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was filmed in 3-D, I thought it was a gimmick. I associated the technology with cheap thrills, B-movies starring Vincent Price, and the third installment of any given film franchise (Jaws 3-D, Step Up 3D, and so on). Even the financial success and stunning effects of James Cameron's 3-D opus, Avatar, had not convinced me the medium could be used for anything beyond commercial blockbusters and animated films. Then I went to a screening of Herzog's film, which is about the Paleolithic cave paintings at the Chauvet Cave in Southern France. Here, the use of 3-D seems a stroke of genius—that perfect combination of unexpected yet inevitable. With Cave of Forgotten Dreams (which opens today in limited release), Herzog has created a moving narrative that seeks to understand the human impulse to create. And, oh yes, he's included radioactive, albino crocodiles.

Discovered in 1994, the Chauvet cave contains the earliest known prehistoric art, some of it dating back 32,000 years. It is a gallery of ancient human inspiration, filled with renderings in charcoal and ochre of mammoths, horses, ibexes, cave bears, and even some Venus-like figures. Because of strict climate regulation and concerns that carbon dioxide will erode the quality of the artwork, Herzog had only six days and a crew of three to capture the rarely seen paintings. Even this access was a coup—admission is strictly limited to a team of researchers for a few weeks each year, and the cave is never open to the public. Herzog promised the French Ministry of Culture the use of his footage for non-commercial purposes and even became a temporary employee of the French government in order to gain entry.

At the DOC NYC screening of Cave of Forgotten Dreams that I attended in November, there was much giggling and speculation as we lined up to collect our glasses and take our seats. What kind of wacky purpose might 3-D might serve for Herzog? The director is known for putting his own particular stamp of oddity on his films, whether it be peppering an increasingly flummoxed scientist with questions about deranged penguins in his Oscar-nominated 2008 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, or having the title character deliver a final, maniacal soliloquy to a squirming monkey in Aguirre: The Wrath of God. But as Cave of Forgotten Dreams moved gracefully along and the cave paintings, created so many generations before our own, seemed to come alive in the flickering light (Herzog, reduced to his tiny crew, did the lighting himself), there was a realization that we had been given a collective gift. It is unlikely that any of us will see these drawings in person and it is only through 3-D that the true beauty, the true sense of shared humanity and complexity with something so ancient, can be approximated in any kind of real life way.

I spoke about 3-D with filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar, whose 2008 documentary, In a Dream , was shortlisted for an Academy Award along with Encounters at the End of the World. Zagar's film is an intimate exploration of family and a chronicle of his father Isaiah's artwork. Unwilling to be limited in artistic scope by the personal nature of the narrative, he filmed in a dazzling combination of digital, 35mm and 16mm film, HD, and super 8. The result is a "small subject" writ large through striking imagery and storytelling.

Zagar observed that as the ability to watch movies from so many mediums—be it smartphone, iPad, or computer—increases, audiences are looking for something more immersive in their theater-going experiences. This idea is similar in concept to the thinking that drove studios to champion 3-D in the 1950's. At the time they were competing with the new television set. But there is a possibility that with some recent 3-D endeavors the goal is one of expression over simple monetary gain. As Zagar said, "Digital film was traditionally ghettoized into small format, but docs and indies can be as big as any film. The technology will become more accessible and more filmmakers will utilize it."

He pointed out that while Herzog is known for pushing the envelope, he is not alone among a growing cadre of "serious" filmmakers making use of 3-D. In February of this year Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club, Wings of Desire) premiered a 3-D documentary chronicling the work and spirit of the late avant-garde choreographer Pina Bausch. As much an homage to their 20-year friendship as an exploration of her groundbreaking work in dance and theater, Wenders has said of the documentary that, "It was only when 3-D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance's realm and language."

In March, a Royal Opera production of Bizet's Carmen, titled, appropriately, Carmen 3D, premiered worldwide. The company has also begun to film ballet in 3-D. In this way, the form does seem to be making a departure from traditional commercial thrills to more artistic endeavors.

For his part, Herzog seems unconcerned with the future of 3-D, though he is pleased that these films cannot be pirated. Dismissing Avatar as "fireworks", he said his decision to shoot in 3-D was based solely on the subject matter. And it is hard not to be awed by the success of that choice. Cave of Forgotten Dreams captures an element of art that is indeed sometimes "forgotten." Being able to stand virtually face to face with the work of an ancient people we can only hope to dimly understand, the viewer is still touched by the graceful movement of a pack of ibex, the statuesque nobility of a woolly mammoth, and the eerie sense of kinship with a set of handprints made on a cave wall thousands of years ago. Herzog probes this connection between our modern selves and ancient ancestors, positing that he would have made a very good Paleolithic man.

And lest we think Herzog has somehow gone soft on us, Cave of Forgotten Dreams features an extended epilogue starring those radioactive, albino crocodiles. Well, Herzog admitted in his signature Bavarian deadpan during the Q&A that followed the screening, they aren't actually radioactive. But what if they were? And what if this new species of creature could somehow slither up the French mountainside and come face to face to with the Paleolithic cave drawings adorning those ancient rock walls? Might it set off some kind of artistic spark in their newly formed radioactive brains? Would this be the same kind or artistic revelation that inspired man, 32,000 years ago, to recreate in two dimensions the horses and rhinos living among them? And, perhaps, in the end, it is not that dissimilar from the idea to make use of a format like 3-D in a new, exciting way.