Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Director : Werner Herzog
Screenplay : Werner Herzog (inspired by an article by Judith Thurman)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 2011
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog joins the small group of human beings who have actually stepped foot inside in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a limestone cave in the cliff face above the Ardeche River in the mountainous Ardèche region of south-central France. Rediscovered by a trio of French spelunkers in 1994 after having been sealed off from the world following a rock slide some 20,000 years ago, Chauvet Cave is home to the oldest known preserved form of human expression: a complex series of hundreds of paintings that cover numerous walls deep into the cave, the oldest of which date back 32,000 years. After its discovery, the French government immediately sealed off the cave with an iron door and now permit only a select few to enter. Thus, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is likely the closest any of us will ever come to seeing what is inside.
Knowing this, Herzog and his tiny crew (only four of them were allowed to enter) take great pains to document the paintings in close detail, moving slowing over the textured rock faces and allowing us to observe the tiniest details of the various charcoal strokes (whether made by fingers, sticks, or rocks) that come together to form fascinatingly complex portraits of some 13 different animal species that roamed the valley in the upper Paleolithic Era: lions, bison, horses, bears, mammoths, and so on. While most of us probably conjure images of crude stick figures and simplistic line drawings when thinking about “cave paintings,” the artworks inside Chauvet are a true revelation. The artists responsible for the images clearly understood linear perspective and techniques of shading to create depth and detail, and they also were aware of how to strike a fine balance between physical representation and artistic embellishment. The pictures are, in a word, beautiful, and Herzog pays them deep respect by making thoughtful use of digital 3-D, not to make things pop out of the screen, but rather to draw us into the space we will never visit physically and to better convey the manner in which the ancient artists used the natural curves of the cave walls to accentuate their paintings.
Always the philosopher, Herzog, who was partially inspired to make the film by Judith Thurman’s thoughtful 2008 New Yorker article “First Impressions,” is not content to simply document what is inside the cave. Rather, he uses the images as a launching point for a series of essentially unanswerable questions, the most essential being “What does it mean to be human?” The presence of these beautiful artworks made more than three millennia ago and trapped in darkness for the past two is a tangible reminder of the temporal depth of human existence and how the desire to express ourselves by recreating the world through our own artistic devices is hardly a new development. We will never know who, exactly, was responsible for the images inside Chauvet, although there are tantalizing clues, such as the imprint of a hand with a broken little finger near the mouth of the cave that shows up again deeper inside.
The works were the product of multiple artists over thousands of years, and the manner in which Herzog’s cold-panel lights illuminate the spaces and the shadows of his crew move across the walls suggests how those artists might have seen their own works via flickering torchlights (the attempt by the artists to create the illusion of movement in some of their images leads Herzog to speculate that they are a form of “proto-cinema,” thus directly linking his own artistic endeavors to theirs). The paintings are, as Herzog puts it in his voice-over narration, “a frozen flash of a moment in time.” Yet, that “frozen flash” is really little more than a tantalizing glimpse of prehistory, an idea that is neatly encapsulated in a painting that curves around on a stalagmite, the other side of which neither Herzog nor the audience is allowed to see because it would require the crew to step off the two-foot-wide aluminum pathways installed throughout the cave to which they have been restricted. So close, yet so far.
Herzog has been making documentaries since the 1960s, and the range of his subjects is immense, from a German-born U.S. pilot who survived in an internment camp after crashing in World War II, to the naturalist Timothy Treadwell, who was ironically devoured by the very grizzly bears with which he was so enamored. Yet, despite their various subjects, all of his films have in common a fundamental fascination with the nature of human existence and its relation to the natural world, themes that emerge in various ways throughout Cave of Forgotten Dreams. While Herzog duly interviews the various scientists and historians responsible for studying and preserving the cave, you can’t help but feel that his heart is still back in the cave itself, fascinated and perplexed by its perfect preservation of ethereal human expression in the physical form of charcoal on limestone. If those images are, in some form, human dreams that have been long forgotten, Herzog reminds us that the past is never entirely gone, and is perhaps just waiting to be rediscovered.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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