Werner Herzog reveals a protocinema of Paleolithic drawings in the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Earth’s earliest drawings
The new wave German filmmaker’s enthusiasm is contagious in this unprecedented filming of Chauvet Cave in southern France. Here Earth’s earliest known drawings, about 32,000 years old, were discovered in 1994.
Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s exquisite 3-D images show horses gallop, and now-extinct cave bears and cave lions stalk the undulating walls glittering with calcite. Woolly mammoths peer back at you. Spotted panthers prowl.
The 3-D camerawork invites you in. Herzog’s offbeat narration and signature metaphysical musings keep the film lively. A sacred feeling is evoked in kinship with the ancients.
Cave bears clawed these walls. Leaving their mark on the drawings, they seem like collaborators.
Only a small camera and four small, portable panel lights were allowed. Filmed under strict limitations to protect the delicate ecology, the scenes inspire awe.
Since ancient artists carried torches to provide light, Herzog theorizes that they held these aloft and danced, their shadows moving with the animals in an ancient cinema.
Impishly, he shows us a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadow in Swing Time.
Art and science meet
Laser spectroscopy of the cave is shown. Hundreds of thousands of points of light reveal every detail and contour of Chauvet Cave’s 1300 feet. Jean Clottes, head of the scientific team studying the cave and its art, excitedly shares his theories.
Europe was dry, cold and glacial then. One could journey on foot from England to France and Germany.
Dominique Baffier, archaeologist and curator of Chauvet Cave, tours the drawings. Each one tells a story, she believes. Rhinoceros lock horns. Bison run, their multiple legs meant to show movement.
Looking back 35,000 years
Archaeology Magazine reports that the Chauvet artwork was created 35,000 years ago, and again 5,000 years later. Looking fresh and new, the images have been carbon dated.
Fantastic beauty fills the cave. Stalactites and stalagmites glow. Some formations unfurl like candy ribbon. Others evoke thin, frozen needles of rain.
In another mystery, only one human form was drawn. On a rock pendant, the bottom half of a woman with Venus of Willendorf proportions appears. The team mounts its camera on a stick to reveal the upper half of the image for the first time. It is a bison head.
Animals and humans shared a common, dreamtime existence. Trees spoke. Have we forgotten how to listen? The footprint of an eight-year-old is found next to a wolf paw print. Herzog wonders whether they walked side by side.
The cave was used for drawing and ceremony, experts believe. There are no human remains. Animal bones, including cave bear skulls and even a golden eagle skeleton, carpet the floor.
A Bear Skull Altar faces the cave’s entrance. Bits of charcoal are strewn about like remnants of incense.
Herzog interviews several odd, passionate spiritual seekers. Reindeer-skin clad Wulf Hein plays The Star-Spangled Banner on an ancient flute made from a vulture’s ulna.
Archaeologist Julien Monmey shares a story about an Australian aborigine. When asked why he was painting on rock, the aborigine replied, “I am not painting. The hand of the spirit is painting.”
New wave soundtrack
The obtrusive soundtrack is ill-suited to quiet reverence. When Herzog asks his team to observe silence and listen to the cave, moviegoers listen with them for only a few seconds before the heavy-handed score intrudes.
Herzog invites a master perfumer along, but he is unable to detect much aroma.
Risking his life to uncover mystery and truth in his work, 68-year-old Herzog explored some of the most remote areas of the South Pole in Encounters at the End of the World. In Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man, he delved into man’s improbable visions and showed the price for realizing those dreams.
In a surreal coda, we see a nuclear power plant some 20 miles away from Chauvet Cave. Its super-heated water prompted officials to build a tropical biosphere dome there. Alligators were introduced. They thrive, some mutating into a ghoulish white.
Might the reptiles escape one day and invade the Chauvet area? Two albino alligators face each other in the waters, teeth bared. Herzog asks whether we are doppelgangers, ghostly doubles of the ancients. (4 out of 5 stars)
If you like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you might enjoy: The Wind Journeys.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams 2010 / G / 1 hour, 30 min
Cast Overview: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Charles Fathy
Director: Werner Herzog
Genre: Documentary, Nature, Science, Spirituality