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This article was updated on 10 Oct 2013, and is filed under Research Provocations.

Kevin Fisher Research Provocation: The Ecstatic Gestalt in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Barbara Klinger questions the critical celebration of Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams as the first non-gratuitous use of 3D: perfectly suited to revealing the interior of the cave and the naturalistic environment in which it is situated, as opposed to immersing the spectator within computer-generated artificial worlds. Instead she argues that “Cave’s relationship to 3D is more paradoxical and interesting than such contrasts suggest. . . . In fact [the] film is [reflexively] as much about 3D as it is about its archaeological site. . . . . . [specifically] the stylistic choices of deep focus cinematography (which presents foreground, middle ground, and background in focus) and a dynamically mobile camera help to wed spectacular natural phenomena and the spectacle of space” (39).

I want to venture further along the crosshairs of reflexivity and paradox, but by contesting the naturalism ascribed to Herzog’s use of 3D. Inside the cave, but in exterior shots as well, the combination of 3D with deep focus cinematography and camera movement, which Klinger refers to as “gold standards . . . of achieving ‘3Dness’” (40), result instead in a hyperbolic space that exaggerates the separation of negative and positive parallax towards the center of the screen while attenuating it at the peripheries. This emphatic demarcation of figure from ground marks what I call the film’s ecstatic gestalt, which I argue is more expressionistic than naturalistic, exhibiting the distorting power of a state of consciousness within what Klinger refers to as its “spectacle of space”. As Vivian Sobchack argues, the configuration of figure/ground relations within any cinematic image always implicates the viewing position of an embodied subject through whose intentional activity it is co-constituted. The highly mobile camera in Cave corroborates this point by associating the exaggeration of the 3D effect with the activity of a viewing subject rather than with some natural feature of the represented world.

In its embodiment of an invisible yet expressive consciousness, Cave is exemplary of what Eric Ames observes as Herzog’s penchant for provoking reflexive awareness of “inner landscapes, . . . the [outer] landscapes serve to conjure unseen words of affect and spirituality, even as they represent the physical world we inhabit” (58). Here, as in The Grizzly Man (2005), the expression of an inner landscape intersects with another persistent theme from Herzog’s oeuvre: exploration of the boundary between a human and non-human or pre-human consciousness. The relationship of gestalt philosophy to such themes is well established. In his reading of gestalt theorist Jean Piaget, Habermas describes how the development of the capacity for gestalt within the human child recapitulates an evolutionary stage in the development of human consciousness. This is not to deny that infants, pre-human ancestors, or animals possess some ability to delineate figure from ground. The assumption rather is that they are incapable of bringing the gestalt to reflection, and of thereby figuring themselves within it. As Georges Bataille observes, although “the animal can be regarded as a subject for which the rest of the world is an object, it is never given the possibility of regarding itself in this way” (19). Rather, for Bataille, “the animal is in the world as water is in water” (23), its experience characterized by immanence, immediacy, and continuity with its surroundings. It is only through the correlated emergence of tool use, language and representation, Bataille argues, that consciousness comes to atomize the world into a discontinuous order of “things” defined by their utility, which the human being comes to count itself among, though as separate and unique. As a consequence, “nothing is more closed to us than this animal life from which we are descended. . . . We can never imagine things without consciousness . . . since we and imagine imply consciousness, our consciousness, adhering indelibly to their presence” (20).

My reading of Cave’s ecstatic gestalt through Bataille’s speculative anthropology resonates with Paul Arthur’s description of a “metaphysical realism” in which “as self-professed intermediary between opposing worlds—modern/pre-modern, prosaic/myth, accessible/recondite—Herzog’s strongest moments revolve around what can’t be shown, what exceeds or beggars representation . . . [and to] that which testifies to his own inadequacy and, by extension, that of cinema’s meager communicative tools” (5). In this respect, I’m not implying that Herzog’s use of 3D attempts to capture the inner landscape of a pre-human consciousness. For as Bataille declares: “There was no landscape in a world where the eyes that opened did not comprehend what they looked at, where indeed, in our terms, the eyes did not see” (21). Rather, I want to argue that Herzog cultivates this ecstatic gestalt to express the radical shock and novelty of what he describes in the film as “the birth of the human soul.” It is in this way that the novelty of 3D doubles and substitutes for that of a more primordial innovation of which cinema is itself an extension. By breaking the plane of representation and the illusion of depth to which the cinematic spectator is habituated, Cave simulates the world-rupturing force of a much more fundamental discontinuity in the perceptual gestalt and (importantly) provokes reflexive awareness of this fact.



Ames, Eric (2009) ‘Herzog, Landscape, and Documentary’, Cinema Journal 48:2, pp. 49-69.

Arthur, Paul (2005) ‘Beyond the Limits: Werner Herzog’s Metaphysical Realism’, Film Comment 41:4, pp. 42-47.

Bataille, Georges (1989) Theory of Religion, translated by Robert Hurley, New York: Zone Books.

Habermas, Jürgen (1991) ‘Historical Materialism and the Development of Normative Structures’, in Communication and the Evolution of Society, translated by Thomas McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Klinger, Barbara (2012) ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Meditations on 3D’, Film Quarterly 65:3, pp. 38-43.

Sobchack, Vivian (1992) The Address of the Eye, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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