Cave of Forgotten Dreams

A- Documentary

  • Directed by Werner Herzog

Only Werner Herzog would ask a scientist about his dreams. But that’s precisely why Herzog was the perfect choice to make this documentary about very ancient cave paintings—amongst the earliest works of art in existence, and works that show significant talent. Other documentarians would ask about how the paint was made and how it is now being researched. Herzog asks about dreams—those of the scientists and those of the artists dead now for 30 millennia.

Discovered (perhaps I should say, rediscovered) in 1994, the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France contains the oldest cave paintings yet discovered–some dating back 32,000 years. As near as archeologists can tell, no one ever lived in the cave. People went there to paint, and presumably to look at paintings and probably to take part in religious rituals.

The cave was used this way for thousands of years. 5,000 years after someone made one illustration, someone else drew something new on top of it. Some of those artists were masters. The animals they painted show character, movement, and emotion.

Today, only a handful of scientists are allowed limited access to the cave. Lucky for us, Werner Herzog and a small crew were allowed there, as well. The movie they brought back goes beyond the conventional archeology documentary (although it is certainly that). Herzog’s expressive narrative voice (literally–he narrates the film), his choice of interview questions, the eerie beauty of the caves themselves, and the haunting score by Ernst Reijseger combine to turn Cave into an homage to what makes human beings so different from other animals: the artistic, creative spark.

Alfred Hitchcock, Raoul Walsh, and James Cameron all made 3D movies. But caveforgottendreams2as an art house director, Herzog belongs in an entirely different category. With Cave of Forgotten Dreams, serious art comes in three dimensions.

But how does Herzog handle what many consider a gimmick? He starts the movie with a gimmick–an obvious “wow” 3D shot, as if to say “Okay, it’s 3D. Get over it.” But when we enter the caves, the artistic justification for the added dimension becomes clear. Cave walls aren’t flat. The forgotten artists used the contours of the walls creatively in their paintings. Only in 3D can you truly appreciate them.

But the 3D had its problems. Shot in a hurry with lightweight cameras, many moving shots weren’t properly set up for 3D, making them difficult to watch. I usually don’t suffer from the eye fatigue associated with 3D, but I did here.

Another problem: Someone in authority decided that the film must not have subtitles, despite the fact that the vast majority of experts interviewed are French. Some of the scientists speak English, but they often struggle with it. Others speak French, with a translation spoken over their voice. I would have preferred to hear their voices in their native language, and read the translation.

But even without subtitles, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is well-worth seeing. Werner Herzog has found the heart of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave discovery. When we started painting on walls, and carving in bone, and making music, we became human.

I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival.