In the remote Ardeche area of France, hidden behind a door described in this film as being akin to a bank vault, lies the Chauvet Cave which, aside from being remarkably beautiful on a geographic level, are home to the oldest cave drawings known to man. Additionally, inside the cave are countless skeletons of cave bears, now extinct, making this remarkably well preserved underground cavern quite an important discovery. Found in 1994 and quite rightly put under lock and key by the French government shortly thereafter, in hopes of preserving its current state for research, very few people have ever had the opportunity to explore the Chauvet Cave. Intrepid legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog, however, managed to get permission to bring a small crew with him on a trip through the cave for one of his recent documentary projects, aptly titled Cave Of Forgotten Dreams.
Herzog's film begins with a brief history of the cave's discovery, noting how it was found when some explorers were trying to figure out the source of some air coming out of the ground in the area. The cave was essentially sealed roughly thirty thousand years ago when it appears that a landslide cut off access to it, leaving its contents untouched and away from elements that might damage it. To preserve the cave, the aforementioned door was built and metal pathways have been constructed very carefully inside the cave, avoiding stalagmites and stalactites alike with the utmost care to ensure that nothing gets altered or ruined inside. From here we hear Herzog interview a few experts, scientists and archeologists, each of whom give their input on the cave and discusses their feelings on it. From there, we tour the cave along with Herzog's crew, aided by lights that do not emit heat and often times with low grade consumer HD video cameras guiding the way (the area is too small to bring larger cameras into).
While this documentary lacks the personality of, say, something like Grizzly Man, the film still captivates thanks to the power of its subject. Herzog literally takes us somewhere we're never going to get to go, almost as if on a voyage back in time. The drawings themselves are amazing to see, and show everything from lions and bears to a strange rendering of what appears to be a naked woman morphing into some sort of bison. Scratch marks from animals that at one point lived in the cave can still be found, while one prolific cave dweller with a broken baby finger managed to decorate different parts of the cave with his palm prints - all of which are still very much in plain view and have not visibly deteriorated at all. Of course, Herzog being Herzog, the director also manages to capture some gorgeous shots of the surrounding area and throws in some interviews with the odd eccentric perfume expert here and there just to add character, but the bulk of the film's interest will be found in the footage of the drawings themselves.
Herzog's narration is very matter-of-fact but his personality and wanderlust shines through here and is at times infectious. You can tell that he's quite grateful for the opportunity to have made this film but still manages to keep things somewhat scholarly without ever getting too dry. There's just enough science here to balance things out but the footage is what will keep you watching. All of this is set to a magnificent score courtesy of composer Ernst Reijseger which mixes up cello and stringed instruments with interesting choral arrangements pretty much perfectly. The score is never heavy handed or overly dramatic, instead it complements the footage and the feature beautifully. The end result is a film that, if not Herzog's crowning achievement (just what that will be remains to be seen, thankfully!), is never the less quite an amazing accomplishment.
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is presented in AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen in 1080p high definition in both 2-D and Blu-ray 3-D versions. Video quality is generally quite good but given the way that the movie was shot it's not quite reference quality. Herzog and his small crew were only able to use special lights that didn't emit any heat inside the cave and a lot of the footage is shot on small, consumer grade HD video. As such, some scenes are a little noisy and not quite as razor sharp as the best high definition presentations can be, and there are some instances where there's a bit of shimmer. The good outweighs the bad here, however, as the paintings show up with a lot of detail and texture, really giving you a great idea of how they might appear in the cave itself. Some of the outdoor scenes where the camera, mounted to a remote control helicopter of some sort, zips around the valley surrounding the cave, look very impressive. The disc is well authored, showing no print damage (it's a digital to digital transfer after all) and providing nice, lifelike color reproduction.
Audio chores are handled nicely by the English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, with optional subtitles provided in English SDH and Spanish. This isn't an overly complicated track, as the film's audio is basically just Herzog's narration and some interviews over top of some music, but you can't overstate the importance of that music and the effect that it has on the movie. Thankfully the score is reproduced here quite beautifully, using surrounds nicely to fill in the room and really bringing a lot of emotional depth to scenes where they otherwise might not be there. The dialogue and narration is presented nice and clearly, though it should be noted that when certain interviewees speak in a foreign language (usually French), narration overtop of them translates their dialogue into English.
The main supplement on this release is a Herzog directed short film called Ode To The Dawn Of Man (39:01, HD), which is a look at the making of the score used in Cave Of Forgotten Dreams and which documents the studio musicians and chorus hard at work on the project. Composer Ernst Reijseger appears throughout and this gives us some insight into his creative process and what makes him the interesting composer that he is. Aside from that, there are menus and chapter stops and the film's original theatrical trailer (also in HD).
Herzog has made more involving documentaries than this but that doesn't really take away from this film - it's fascinating and fairly involving and it offers us a rare glimpse into one of the most historically significant finds of our time. The Blu-ray offers this exceptional film a solid transfer and excellent audio and throws in a bonus Herzog helmed documentary that relates to the feature for good measure. Not a documentary for everyone, but Herzog fans and those with an interest in archeology and ancient history should consider this release highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.