Is there another filmmaker that has as successfully toed the line between fiction and documentary work as Werner Herzog? Maybe Louis Malle, but I’m hard pressed to think of others (anyone?).
Herzog is a pretty great director, but he didn’t really gain his cult status or come to the public consciousness until 2005 with Grizzly Man. The first Herzog films I ever saw were The Enigma of Kaspar Hausar, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Even Dwarves Started Small and Stroszek. So the Herzog I always knew was he of the fiction films.
I found Herzog to be pretty surprising then when I started watching films like Lessons in Darkness, Little Dieter Needs to Fly and The White Diamond. But Herzog enthusiasts will all say that his documentaries and fiction films all chew on the same theme: madness.
Each in their own way, all of these films are about madness. Madness when spending too much time with oneself, madness that comes from the overwhelming elements of nature, madness of simply being alive. Sometimes Herzog moves into absurdity, but if you’ve seen any of his documentary My Best Fiend about the infamous Klaus Kinski, it should come as no surprise that the two – madness and absurdity – are often inextricable.
So…Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog and a small crew go into the Chauvet cave in Southern France where the oldest known drawings appear on the walls. The documentary consists of many musical interludes and shadow play, which Herzog uses to brilliant effect, alongside his signature voiceover and the occasional interview with the type of fascinating subjects he prefers (a former circus juggler, a perfumer…of course).
What makes Caves such a strong film is not only the breathtaking exploration of the caverns, but also Herzog’s willingness, actually his insistence, on exploring the human condition simultaneously. His interviews often diverge into other topics, talking about the interviewee’s background, or philosophizing on existence.
In his Academy nominated film Encounters at the End of the World there’s a famous sequence with a penguin who runs away from its group and goes off by itself. Herzog finds the image sad, but also heroic and poetic. He uses it as an analogy for the people that are exploring these isolated regions. He does something similar in the postscript of Caves. Eerie images of albino alligators accompanied by his voiceover tell us of the potential for a strange circle of life, littered with semi-apocalyptic references: madness.
One last note: Herzog is often mocked for his voiceovers. He has a heavy accent and his pronunciation is sometimes heavy-handed. It really struck me during Caves how appropriate his VO is. Sure it reminds us that he’s the filmmaker, blah blah blah, but what it really does is take this out of the hands of the “traditional” VO (Morgan Freeman), which would talk at us or over us, and certainly not have the same meandering cadence as a Herzog delivery. The very tone of the voice changes the film significantly.
I’ll be writing a more formal review for this later and will post the link.