The French government gave Herzog rare access to the perfectly sealed artwork and by extension, we are his benefactors. Described as “frozen flesh in a moment of time,” viewers are treated to an almost glorified museum tour with the eccentric Herzog as our guide. Though he’s almost 70-years old, Herzog’s voice is full of childlike giddiness as he describes his uncensored look into the depictions of bears and panthers against the cave’s preserved walls. The film is at its most spell-bounding, however, when Herzog or anyone else, for that matter, doesn’t speak. The star of Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the artwork and its creators, so its best when we’re allowed to absorb the sketches amid soft music or no music at all.
The documentary doesn’t stay quiet for long because it is after all a Herzog film, a movie that examines the filmmaker’s abstract thoughts as much as it does with the untapped cave. Under his proverbial microscope, Herzog imagines the cave as the place where the modern soul is awakened. And in an introspective twist, he laments in our curse of being stuck in time while studying the timeless. He wonders of his own place in human history when all is said and done, if he is just another caveman making sketches with his own paintbrush of a camera.
While Herzog’s free-form thoughts are certainly entertaining, he often gets overboard with the speculation and the conjecture, losing track of the documentary’s focus. In an attempt to investigate how the prehistoric artists lived, he devotes almost a quarter of the film to how they may have hunted or mated. The detour in the documentary’s narrative can feel like long-winded, purposeless stream of consciousness. But if you bear with Herzog and all his little oddities, Cave of Forgotten Dreams will give you an appreciation for not only the ancient paintings, but the importance of art itself.