Film: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

August 18, 2011 | By

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Film: Very Good / DVD Transfer: n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: n/a

Genre: Documentary / Art / Archeology / 3D

Synopsis: Werner Herzog films Paleolithic cave drawings, perfectly preserved for 32,000 years due to a landslide.

Special Features: n/a




Werner Herzog has a fixation on vanishing cultures, ironies of history, delusions of grandeur, mad pursuits, and man needle-dropping himself into extreme situations or locales to test his mettle. There’s also the consequences of dreadful actions, and the impact on nature after humans have left their mark – either from just living, or the horrors of war.

Based on a New Yorker article (“First Impressions”) by Judith Thurman, Herzog’s documentary uses slow camerawork, gently flowing sounds, moments of calm, repetition of visuals, and his flowing, quirky English delivery to ease viewers into a calm state, but unlike prior docs, his filmmaking techniques never disaffect the key message that a rare portal into human history is slowly vanishing, and every element within the film is tied to his own sense of urgency to capture and document the static reality of Paleolithic cave drawings preserved for 32,000 years behind a landslide before it’s once again shuttered by anthropologists and archeologists to ensure further human won’t destroy what remained virtually untouched, even from animals, bugs, and bacteria.

Herzog knows how to let a good story unfold, saving key facts for dramatic peaks, and while ostensibly a documentary with repeated images of cave paintings, he staggers the narrative with teaser images – beautifully filmed in HD 3D – and his own first foray with a crew of 4 into the caves, discovered after careful detective work in 1995.

Searching for air drafts between cliff cracks, a small opening was found, and when the first explorers crawled inside, they found sketches of animals in the cave’s nether regions. The full length of the system runs something along 3 kilometers, but its original entrance remains covered from a massive wall of rocky rubbish. Once exposed to sunlight, the sealed cave system was transformed into a weird world of crystallized floor, stalagmites and stalagmites, and various mineral deposits which give off a crystalline sheet when light flows across a rocky wall.

It’s amusing the archeologists were concerned the drawings may have been a modern prank, but the mineral growths extending from the painted walls, along with carbon dated charcoal strokes, proved the caves housed the oldest human art ever discovered.

Drawn when Neanderthals and homo sapiens existed in tandem, perhaps the most striking aspects of the art is the skill, care and aesthetics which primitive man invested into the creations, which include horses, lions, and rhinos. As one of the interviewed anthropologists explains, homo sapiens were unique in developing artifacts for culture – instruments, sculptures, a sense of a higher spiritual power – and the drawings do tell specific narratives.

The images were meant to tell stories, but it’s the details which move modern eyes: the carefully articulated hair of each horse’s mane, the expressions of the creatures that are easily recognizable to modern eyes, aspects of animal copulation, and multiple legs and ghost lines which may have been added to suggest horses galloping and heads moving back & forth – something Herzog coins “proto-cinema.”

The film’s first section shows the hour-long visit where Herzog and his 3 assistants essentially location scouted with the scientists, learning the layout, noting questions for subsequent interviews, and areas where they could train their camera  and lights to capture the mystical & normal aspects of art.

The crew later returned for a week, where they were allowed 4 hours daily to film as much as they could, even extending their camera beyond the aluminum walkway in the farthest cave to capture more details of a ceiling pendant which bears the cave’s only human image.

Efforts to map the caves digitally are underway, as are full representations of the art, and there are plans to erect a man-made replica for tourists – perhaps the first real test of modern technology in duplicating in inaccessible for the masses, and preserving the fragile for future generations without harm.

The use of the Dolby 3D system contains virtually no in-your-face trickery (except maybe a flying moth, which is likely a moment of accent as it was likely attracted to the camera lights). Herzog and his cinematographers used the 3D format to replicate their own experiences, and the results are rather remarkable: it’s not unusual to lean to the side and get ‘a better view’ of the flowing walls, ‘glance to the side’ to examine the darker portion of a corner, and lean close to take in details of the art, as well as the mineral deposits, and numerous claw scratches made by ancient cave bears.

Animal skeletons and skulls were also found in the caves – on the ground they’ve been covered by minerals and resemble amorphous porcelain shapes – and one bear skull seems to have been placed dead center on a rock that once faced the cave’s entrance – perhaps an altar or spiritual guardian, as Herzog hypothesizes.

The doc manages to make several important points: through art (and specifically images) early man can’t be regarded anymore as a rube who hunted, ate, fought, procreated, and just hung around with blank thoughts; the sophisticated drawings are links to every modern culture – maybe not directly, but certainly representative that humans didn’t evolve from dumb beasts. 32,000 years ago there was already a learning curve and culture in the works, and we’re richer for what was pioneered and developed through aesthetics, and primitive but subjectively effective judgments.

Herzog does repeat sections of the cave art in the finale, but it’s to remind us of their uniqueness. In one lengthy montage, composer Ernest Reijseger (who also scored Herzog’s The White Diamond, The Wild Blue Yonder, and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done) supports the images with a cue that captures man’s creative evolution through music, first inferring native American vocals, morphing to Gregorian harmonies, and settling on a slight Medieval style before devolving back to the primal vocal patterns.

Woven throughout the film are cues written in a modernist and delicate chamber style, with an emphasis on solo strings with rich vibrato.

Being a Herzog film, however, there has to be a slightly peculiar moment when the filmmaker’ personality steps into the subject matter like a boot splashing into a calm puddle, and presents an odd perspective that’s purely Herzogian.

In a postscript chapter to the film proper, the filmmaker reveals the cave system lies a mere 20 kilometer’s from one of France’s largest nuclear power plants, and the steamy runoff has been redirected into a bizarre equatorial greenhouse for crocodiles. Among the living dinos are several albino crocs – mutations. One’s initial suspicion is of a revelation that the caves are in danger of flooding, damage from the super-heated water, or being transformed into a tourist attraction.

Not so.

In his imitable prosaic philosophizing in weird, German-to-English stream of thought, Herzog ponders what the crocs would think if they swam into the ancient caves, and gazed upon the images of their wild kindred, perhaps weighing mysterious of life and evolution. Perhaps Herzog is merely attempting to expand on the obviously irony where contemporary man has brought back a living relic of man’s past into an area once saturated with its kindred, and if a croc could think beyond the scope of his marble noodle and see the cave drawings, how would it judge man’s art, or perhaps contemplate its own existence from the stark pictorials?

More than likely, if any single croc – including the albinos – swam into the caves, their thoughts would be elemental: Dark. Cold. Hungry. Bored. No like. Bye.



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan


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