Towards the end of his new 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams Werner Herzog interviews a scientist. The scientist recalls a tale of an ethnographer who, while in the presence of an Aborigine came across a historical rock painting. The Aborigine, sad to see the rock painting beginning to fade immediately began to repaint the fading lines. The ethnographer, surprised by the man’s decision to repaint this historical artefact asked him why he was repainting it; to this the Aborigine replied with something to the effect of: “I am not painting it; it is the spirit that is painting”. This exchange between the western ethnographer and the Aborigine illustrates the essential question in Cave of Forgotten Dreams: How should we as human beings interpret the history of our species and how should we deal with the markings man has made in the past?
It is precisely this question that motivates and justifies Werner Herzog’s decision to use 3D to shoot his documentary charting the Chauvet Caves in France, the site of the oldest cave paintings known to man (dated around 30,000 years old). Herzog ventures to give the audience the opportunity to look upon the oldest man made illustrations with as great a sense of authenticity as possible, as entering the cave is a hugely exclusive privilege. Though there has been some scepticism as to the ability of 3D technology to create a realistic experience Herzog’s film comes very close, as we are given an opportunity to truly perceive the shape of the caves and the way the paintings sit on the walls.
However, ‘realism’ is not the true reason why Cave of Forgotten Dreams is successful as a film. The film provides us with an opportunity to look upon the oldest form of manmade representation (that of cave paintings) with the technology of the immediate present (3D cinema); Herzog uses 3D to drive the main questions of the film. By looking upon these ancient images with such a contemporary technology we are provoked to recognise the “abyss of time” (as Herzog puts it) that stands between the images being painted and Herzog’s filming of them. The film makes us recognise not only the extraordinary opportunity to look upon such seminal images (images which Herzog relates to the “birth of the modern human soul”), but it also gives us the opportunity to understand the films place in this extraordinary human history. It is not just these ancient paintings that are intriguing, but it is just as extraordinary that someone should be filming them, in 3D no less 30,000 years on.