A cautious warning is always given to the younger generation: learn from the past to not repeat its mistakes. This is the treasure Werner Herzog has brought to us in his recent film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In an expressive exposition of cinema vérité, Herzog has taken cameras, both 3-D and regular, to the Chauvet Cave. The explorers discovered the cave in 1994 in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. The paintings in this cave are anywhere from 32,000 to 20,000 years old and have only been seen, in person, by several handfuls of people over the past 20,000 years. No tours are allowed. Nobody can step on the ground. Nobody touches the paintings. Nobody can venture into entire regions of the cave.
To that extent, the cave has remained as untouched as it was found. Locked away by the French government since its discovery, Herzog is the only filmmaker to ever step inside the cave. In terms of equipment, making a typical documentary in this sort of environment borders on impossible. Unable to leave the meticulously laid steel walkway, the filmmakers cannot avoid being a part of the film. In exploring a cave filled with paintings that already feel iconic, Herzog’s film crew are half adventurers and half chroniclers. Their task is to bring the cave out of the cave. Accompanied by the only tour guides capable of handling this task, the filmmakers voyage into the south of France to reveal humanity before recorded time. Herzog says it best: “I’m doing my best to present the cave as it is to the world…I’ve realized when I see the film with audiences that nobody speaks about having seen a film. They all speak of having been in a cave.” Too true.
Surrounding the stalagmites, bones of saber-toothed tigers and cave bears and tiny footprints left by the children of ancient man are the wondrous paintings whose depth, confidence, and imagination display the artistry that remains intrinsic not just to human development but civilization as well. Herzog carefully navigates and curates the journey into the cave to let it speak its story for itself. In multiple viewings of certain paintings, the narrative provided by the archaeologists and filmmakers begin to feel too obvious to mistake. Each new filming angle, each enthusiastic scientist carefully prodded to reveal their feelings on the subject, and Herzog’s careful interjections make it a journey more of wonder and revelation than one of scholars and tomes.
A constant question is presented to which there is no answer: who were the people who painted and lived in this cave? While evidence of certain people is unmistakable, little is known besides the size of their hands, feet, and the fires they made in the cave. The remnants of animals do little to prove the coexistence of man and beast in the cave itself. But the paintings are exuberant displays of Middle Paleolithic animals: herds of bison, Mammoths, wild horses are prominent and done with exacting detail. The images are almost too familiar, like they have been within us forever but lost until this visual cue awakens our understanding.
One of the impressive revelations of the cave is this painting on a rock protrusion. The combination of bison and woman shows an early conception of a “minotaur” or the combination of bull / bison properties and sexual reproduction. This predates the worship of the bull by Bronze Age man by thousands of years. The drawing is clever in its use of the rock, with legs straddling the curves to reveal an early reverence for female reproductive prowess. Cave of Forgotten Dreams becomes more an examination of people and how we interact with our environments than an examination of artistic talent. In this completely digital world – from the computer I write this on to the smartphone / tablet / laptop you read this on – our experience with our environment is at a tertiary level at best. These paintings exist not from imagination but from first person encounters with the land before civilization. So this combination of bull and female… does it reside as a tangible understanding of the world? An intrinsic part of man’s society? What can we learn from this part of our past?
The addition of 3-D, while faulty at times, makes this journey more tangible than a cerebral adventure through your own mind. The smooth curves of the wall, glistened and protected by years of calcite and other earthy build up, make the beauty of these paintings no small work of man. Scoring the film presents an additional problem: what sort of music can a filmmaker pair with such transcendent images? The new age soundtrack has its haunting moments but can also lull you into a peaceful splendor that could bring a yawn during your moment of revelation. Herzog captivates the viewer with diversions from the fundamentals of ancient life. Anthropologists demonstrate spear throwers, painters examine early painting tools, and
crazy men perfumers and musicians look for the smells and sounds of the past. Life and death are displayed as the temporal minutae in eternal art.
In the challenge of viewing the paintings, the message becomes clear: this is a story about ourselves, not about who we were. Herzog’s post-script, showing the introduction of crocodiles in the Rhône-Alpes, hammers home a point: forget about the mistakes, can we learn anything at all from this? Or are we destined to observe, prey, and never evolve like the crocodile only mutating to our surroundings? It is a strange antecedent to a film that basks in transcedence. Should we embrace our own mythos and culture or stay tethered to the the movie / tv / computer screen?
No matter what your thoughts are coming out of this film, you will have thoughts that will last a while – possibly forever. That’s a lot more than most cinema nowadays.