Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Starring Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin, Charles Fathy

Directed by Werner Herzog

Expectations: I expect to love this.

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary is not nearly as eccentric and philosophical as some of the other films I’ve seen of his, but it is nothing short of a resounding success. Given unprecedented access to the Chauvet Cave in southern France, Herzog and his three crew members do their best to capture every aspect of the cave, visually, sonically & spiritually. Herzog even interviews a perfumer who may attempt to recreate the ancient smell of the cave’s interior for a reproduction being built at a theme park, but since the film is not in Smell-O-Vision, viewers are left to imagine the smell described.

The Chauvet Cave was discovered in 1994 by a small group of scientists privately searching the countryside for caves to explore. Upon finding a draft of air coming up from the ground, they dug their way in and discovered a large cave inside. They continued to explore and suddenly one of their lights landed on a painting on the wall of a mammoth. Even in this moment, I doubt any of them realized the importance of their find. Upon further exploration and research it has been determined that Chauvet Cave is home to the oldest cave paintings ever discovered, kept pristine by a landslide that sealed the cave from outside intrusion for 30,000 years.

Prior to viewing the film I had seen only a few cave paintings, but everything I had seen had been fairly primitive. They all looked rudimentary yet artistic in their own way, but far from anything that would constitute an accurate depiction of an animal. The paintings in Chauvet Cave are astounding in that they are amazingly lifelike and stunning in their artistry. Some animals are painted with multiple limbs, simulating movement. The detail and the power of the images is incredible and Herzog does a masterful job of displaying them to the viewers.

In the opening section of the film, Herzog takes only a small, unprofessional camera into the cave. This is his first time into the cave as well, and it plays out fascinatingly on-screen. The shaky, low resolution camera guides us through the narrow opening and descends down the rope harness with our guides. There is a definite feel of actually descending into the cave with the team, the feeling only intensified by the 3D aspect of the film. Nevermind that 3D is a gimmick used to sell more tickets at a higher premium, Herzog uses it to great effect in portraying the cave to the audience. The walls are smooth and flowing, with many curves and indentations, the paintings curving in and out of these natural features. The cave itself is as much a part of the beauty and artistry as the paint itself. The 3D brings out the depth of these features masterfully and I can’t imagine having as good of an experience with the film in 2D. I’m not generally a champion of the format, but Herzog creates a stunning reason why some films need to be made in three dimensions.

As usual, Herzog narrates the film with his thick accent and philosophical musings. At one point Herzog asks a seemingly ridiculous question of one of the scientists mapping the cave, if the lives, the thoughts, the dreams of these ancient people can be re-created from the paintings and discoveries we have made within the cave. The scientist laughs at first, before composing himself and stating that we can only piece together what we can, such as the time the paintings were done and things like that. Here Herzog follows up by asking where the scientist is from and it eventually comes out that he was once a unicyclist in a circus. These fragments of our lives, important to our personal narrative, are but fleeting moments to the Earth and are forever lost when we pass on. This seemingly minor question brings together the film’s intellectual core, forcing a thoughtful viewer to look back on their own life through the filter of 30,000 years and then use that to inform our experience with the cave paintings. Herzog ends the film with a stunning postscript that isn’t directly related to the Chauvet Cave, but given the intellectual context building throughout the film, it is a fitting and wonderful conclusion. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a fantastic piece of documentary filmmaking, taking viewers on a trek under the Earth to reconnect with a piece of ourselves trapped in time.