DIRECTED BY:Werner Herzog
FEATURING: Werner Herzog (narration)
PLOT: Granted unprecedented access, Werner Herzog takes his camera crew into the Chauvet
caves of Southern France to capture images of the oldest artwork ever discovered—Cro-Magnon paintings that date back approximately 30,000 years.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s essentially a very sober and serious documentary on an important subject, with the presence (and odd musings) of ultra-eccentric director Werner Herzog supplying the only weird connection.
COMMENTS: There are two things to keep in mind about Cave of Forgotten Dreams. One is that those of us who missed it in its theatrical run will probably never get the opportunity to experience the film as it was intended to be seen. Cave was originally shot in 3D, and for maybe the first time in film history, there was actually a reason to access that third dimension. The Chauvet paintings were drawn on rocky walls, and the artists incorporated the bulges and ripples into their sketches (Herzog comments on how, in flickering torchlight, the horses and lions drawn on the craggy walls might appear to move—comparing the cave itself to a sort of proto-cinema). The second thing to keep in mind is that this is an Important work; which is not to say that it’s not also Interesting, just that Herzog takes his responsibility to document these previously unseen caverns very seriously, and if it comes down to a choice between being Interesting or Important, he errs towards the latter. The Chauvet caves, which were hidden by a rockslide and preserved away from prying eyes for millennia before being accidentally discovered by spelunkers in 1994, are considered of such scientific and historical importance that only a small number of the world’s top scientists had previously been granted access. The crew was forced to film under restrictive conditions: they were only allowed access for a few hours each day, were confined to a two foot metal walkway so as not to disturb any of the primeval footprints or animal skulls littering the cavern floors, and could only use handheld cameras and low-heat lighting elements that they could carry with them. Since there are only a few painted panels of interest to amateurs, Herzog fills up the running time with interviews with scientists who gave us background on the caves and on Paleolithic man. While he does pick a few colorful characters to interrogate—most notably a guy who dresses in deerskin and serenades us with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” piped on a vulture-bone flute—these scarce quirky digressions aren’t as gonzo as some reports might have you believe. The focus remains on the artwork. Herzog passionately believes that when we look at these mysterious scrawlings of battling rhinos and half-buffalo women we are peeking at the first stirrings of the human soul, though through a cloudy window. In the quiet finale the camera lingers over the detailed panels depicting cave lions and horses, remarkably rendered figures etched one on top of the other to suggest movement, while Ernst Reijseger’s mystical score of cellos, flutes and a droning choir plays an imaginary primordial liturgy. It’s an intense tribute, and even a little trippy. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Herzog film without at least one totally incomprehensible moment. This time it occurs in a head-scratching epilogue. After finishing his tour of the cave, Herzog takes a trip to a nearby experimental biosphere where a tropical climate has been created using heated water from a nearby nuclear reactor. There, he films some albino alligators and proclaims them our doppelgängers, wondering how they would react to the caves. It’s an obscure personal metaphor that provokes an almost universal response: “huh”? But perhaps it’s the best way to end the documentary: we can’t completely understand what Cave‘s paintings meant to artists separated from us by 30,000 years of evolution any more than we can completely understand the peculiar vision of Werner Herzog.
Herzog made two documentaries screened in the U.S. this year, neither of which have been shortlisted for Academy Awards. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which certainly deserved a nomination, was ruled ineligible because it received a limited screening in 2010. His other film, Into the Abyss, concerned interviews with three unrepentant Texas death row inmates, did not make the shortlist of fifteen features despite excellent reviews.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a journey to prehistory that’s simultaneously wondrous and tedious, profound and completely nuts — which is to say, quintessential Herzog.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, National Public Radio (contemporaneous)