Despite himself, Herzog is smart enough to know the paintings are best left to speak for themselves. Animals long extinct. People long ago dead. Civilizations changed many times over. But in Chauvet Cave time stands not still but instead moves forward, taking the soul of prehistoric man into infinity and beyond through the art he left behind. Surely this must be the birthplace of the idea of immortality.
In 1994, three French explorers uncovered a cave that had been closed off for millennia as the result of an ancient rock slide. As if the beautiful natural wonders of calcite formations and perfectly preserved animals bones of long extinct creatures weren’t enough…this particular cavern in the limestone, Chauvet Cave, was also home to the oldest prehistoric cave paintings ever discovered. Scientists estimate some of the paintings date back over 30,000 years to a time when most of France was covered by an ice sheet and man roamed the harsh terrain along with Neanderthals, wooly mammoths and rhinos, horses, cave bears and lions. As unforgiving and calamitous as their environment may have been, these early humans still found time to dream and create art that would survive 30,000 years of unstoppable forward momentum.
This is the focus of Werner Herzog’s gloriously transfixing and typically odd little film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
If you are a fan of Herzog, his particularly lucid and sometimes loony narration will be an absolute delight. Herzog has always been drawn to the misfit and extremist dreamer – people so dedicated to their vision or project that their madness can just as easily bring about their demise as it can a resounding success. Here he attempts to place the explorers, scientists and artists he interviews and the anonymous Paleolithic painters in a similar mold – people driven by their dreams and boundless imaginations. When he interviews so-called experts including a former carnival worker turned cave mapper and a perfumist who uses his supernatural sense of smell to detect air drafts coming up from hidden openings to caves, it’s pure Herzogian madness of the most sincere and wondrous kind. Those not familiar with the director’s tendencies or previous works may tire of his heavily German-accented voice-over and grow befuddled by his cavalcade of weird new friends who wax poetically and sometimes nonsensically about the paintings.
Regardless of your feelings towards Herzog’s presentation, no one can deny the overwhelming sense of awe one feels when viewing the paintings. Man left his mark in Chauvet Cave in depictions ranging from a simple circular smattering of handprints to a complex panel of animals seemingly in motion, running forward in sharp fluid lines and carefully detailed features, marching in a fury towards the future. The film’s greatest strengths lie in the fifteen minutes towards the end when the talking and speculation ceases and Herzog’s silent camera lingers longingly in slowly moving panning shots and close-ups on each of the striking panels while religious-like music plays. This serves as a striking companion piece to both the closing moments of his Encounters at the End of the World where his camera traveled beneath the ice and the sea into a previously unknown world of epic splendor and his Wagner-themed depiction of Jonathan Harker approaching Count Dracula’s castle in Nosferatu. It almost takes your breath away until Herzog jumps to a coda where he ponders over albino alligators and doppelgängers – just go with it, okay?
Written by David H. Schleicher
Check out my reviews of past Herzog films: