Written, directed and narrated by: Werner Herzog
In a cave in southern France, approximately 32,000 years ago, people created a series of paintings which are the oldest yet discovered. Rocks fell into the entrance and the cave was perfectly sealed for nearly all of that time and only rediscovered in 1994. The paintings are delicate and they nearly vibrate with a primitive passion to create and tell stories, so no one is better equipped than Werner Herzog to create a documentary about those paintings, a filmmaker whose every effort vibrates with that exact same passion.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a rare documentary; light on Nova-style recitation of fact and drawn history, but rich with the wonder of what Herzog refers to as the awakening of the modern human soul. Herzog made the unusual but inspired decision to film in 3D, hoping to achieve the sense of movement he feels are implicit in the nature of these paintings as they are scrawled along the topography of the cave walls, animated by flickering candlelight. I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it in 3D, but I suspect the effect is mesmerizing. The Cauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave is preserved under tight regulations, and has been since it was discovered. There is a big metal door that seals it off from the outside, that is opened very rarely and for only a select few visitors of the world’s top archaeologists and art historians. Herzog was granted very exclusive access to the cave, with a crew of only three others who could use only battery powered equipment that they had to carry themselves, never deviating from the narrow steel walkway that leads through the cave. This tiny crew was allowed access four hours a day for only six days. I get the feeling Herzog enjoyed these limitations, and under that pressure felt compelled to capture everything he could. It is no surprise that under such a time limit, he spends time following a Master Perfumer through the cave as he interprets the remnants of ancient scents.
Like other Herzog documentaries, little time is spent with stuffy experts, and Herzog favours instead an archaeologist who was a circus performer for many years, the aforementioned perfumer, an archaeologist who plays his small replica bone flute, and he watches obediently as the director of the Chauvet Caves demonstrates (poorly) his homemade replicas of ancient weapons. One of the ancient visitors to the cave had a crooked little finger, and his handprints show up all along the cave walls, Herzog delights in tracing the man’s path through the cave. The subjects of Herzog’s films, fiction and non-, are always outsiders and loners, driven out of society by their obsessions and with whom Herzog undoubtedly feels a deep connection. For that reason, it’s little surprise that Herzog is so drawn to these cave paintings, because who is more estranged and alien to modern society than primitive humans, painting on cave walls 32,000 years ago?
The cave paintings themselves are astounding, as they suggest an intricate understanding of the natural world. Repeating sequences and animals with too many legs suggest an attempt to portray motion, posed rhinos suggest violence and power. The image of a primitive man climbing into a cave and, under threat of bear attack, working to scrawl the image of fighting rhinos on a cave wall is a romantic one that, I suspect, cuts very close to home for Herzog whose own career is full of stories so ridiculous they could only be true. It’s not a stretch to connect Herzog’s own creative output with these paintings, as his films are endlessly occupied with a fearful fascination with the ferocity of nature. Herzog’s narration spends a great deal of time pondering the presence of these early artists, and the emotional, creative state in which they created these images. He says, at one point, that upon entering the cave he felt like he was disturbing the artists at work as though he entered a cathedral of creativity, bustling with life and the passion of work.
So few historical documentaries involve the emotional input of the author, yet The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is defined by it. Herzog’s narration is brimming with curiosity and admiration, forever wondering at the “abyss of time” that separates him from the original creators; he begs questions of motive and personal drive, drawing conclusions that suggest the irrepressible nature of the human creative voice. This film is hypnotizing in its beauty and exciting in the vibrancy of its presentation and, of course, the post-script that concludes the film provides a typically Herzogian stretch towards the absurd.