Film Reviews

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Published October 1, 2011

Whatever one thinks of Werner Herzog, it has to be admitted that he has a grandiloquent way with titles. Even Dwarves Started Small (1970) is hard to beat. In Australia in 1984, he made the peculiar – and pretty dreadful – film, Where the Green Ants Dream. His 1992 documentary on the oil fires burning in Kuwait was called Lessons in Darkness. Now we have Cave of Forgotten Dreams, another title redolent of German high Romanticism.
At the age of 69, Hezog remains wildly productive, and moves freely between documentaries and feature films. His secret may be that many of his features read like documentaries, while his documentaries are full of fanciful, fictionalised elements.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is one of his most compelling projects. It takes us into Chauvet Cave in the mountainous Ardèche region of southern France, to examine some of the most remarkable prehistoric paintings ever discovered. The find took place in 1994, and since then the French government has placed the caves under the tightest restrictions. Only a handful of scientists are permitted entry for a few weeks each year. The time spent inside the caves must necessarily be brief because of carbon dioxide levels and the fragility of the environment.
Herzog managed to wear down the French Ministry of Culture with repeated requests to film in Chauvet, even offering to become a government employee for a salary of one Euro. Final approval may be related to the fact there are now plans to build an exact facsimile of the caves for the tourist market, as with Lascaux and Altamira.
Having secured access, Herzog decided to go the whole hog by filming in 3D. This necessitated a quick redesign of the 3D cameras, to make them small and versatile enough to be carried on narrow underground duckwalks. The 3D does not add as much to the viewer’s experience as it does in Wim Wenders’s recent documentary about the choreographer, Pina Bausch, but it provides a heightened sense of the curves of the cave walls and the interruptions of stalactites and stalagmites.
The actual artworks hardly need to be filmed in 3D as they would be spectacular in any dimension. Their uniqueness lies in their immaculate state of preservation, and the fact they date back some 30,000 years – making them twice as old as their counterparts at Lascaux or Altamira.
Viewers will be surprised by the remarkable accuracy of these paintings and drawings, which have a naturalism that outshines many artists of the Renaissance, along with an expressive fluency and concision that makes one think of Picasso. These may seem like big claims for the work of an anonymous caveman scratching away at a stone wall by the light of a burning torch, but seeing is believing. The authenticity of the pictures has been established beyond any doubt by the thin layers of calcite that have grown over them.
The reason these images have been so well preserved is because 20,000 years ago a rock slide sealed off the mouth of the cave, concealing it from view. This created a unique time capsule containing tracks and traces of long-extinct animals such as the Cave Bear, along with images of the giant-sized cattle, horses, elephants, rhinos and lions that shared this world with our ancestors. It was also the era of co-existence with the Neanderthals, although these much-mythologised anthropoids did not leave any paintings.
While the visual material is fascinating enough, the Herzog touch is much in evidence in his idiosyncratic interviews with scientists and cave specialists. One of them tells us that he used to be a juggler at the circus before turning to science. Another plays The Star Spangled Banner on a facsimile bone flute, while a third makes a hapless attempt to show us how prehistoric man threw a spear. There is even a former perfumer who spends his days sniffing the ground, hoping to find more caves.
We are treated to Herzog’s inevitable ramblings and metaphysical speculations as he tries to imagine what early humans thought and felt. “It is as if the modern human soul had awakened here,” he says. “These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams. Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artists across such an abyss of time?”
It would not be a Herzog film without these asides, which are vastly preferable to the scripted words of the standard National Geographic narrator. He saves his most eccentric thoughts to the end, as he studies a tank full of albino crocodiles at a nearby aquarium, raised in the warm water from a nuclear power plant.
Despite these oddities, Herzog’s central idea goes right to the heart of the matter: “We are locked in history; they were not.” Those artists who drew on the walls of Chauvet Cave 30,000 years ago were locked into a perpetual present. They had no artistic traditions to draw upon, no historical precedents. There were no nations or ideologies. Life was a hand-to-mouth existence, based on hunting and foraging. They related the natural world in a way that we can scarcely comprehend today, yet somehow, across ‘the abyss of time’, we feel they were just like us.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 1, 2011

Canada/USA/Germany/France/UK, Rated G, 90 minutes.