A film review by Craig J. Koban September 10, 2011

Rank:  #19 


2011, No MPAA Rating (for general audiences), 90mins.


A documentary written and directed by Werner Herzog

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS is a new documentary about “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture.”

Now, before you cry out about the blatant grandiosity of that quoted statement – provided in the voiceover narration by the film’s director, the enigmatically grandiose Werner Herzog - think again: This is a 90-minute chronicle of one of the oldest – and best preserved - series of cave paintings in recorded history, nearly 32,000 years old.  Herzog, an intrepid and endlessly fascinating filmmaker, serves as a tour guide of sorts for the earliest recorded examples of creative innovation, but he also comments on the the centuries-old artists themselves that made the extraordinary work.  If you are interested in art and the history of the human race in general, then you will no doubt find the film deeply immersive and enthralling. 

The paintings in question are in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France, which were in turn discovered by three speleologists named Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet in December of 1994.  What they contain is extraordinary: simply put, the earliest known cave paintings relating to Paleolithic life.  Nearly 1300 feet in overall length and containing hundreds of individual paintings depicting 13 animal species (including some subjects that have been rarely or never been seen in other similar works), the Chauvet cave is a finding of immeasurable historical, cultural, and artistic significance.  It is so significant that, very soon after its discovery, the French government closed off access to the cave by placing a locked and sealed steel door that protects the atmospheric integrity of everything inside.  Scientists are not allowed to step foot on the cave floors or touch anything.  An elaborate series of steel platform flooring has been set up all through the cave to enable observers to not disturb the natural cave floor inside.  Even the general public is not allowed in. 

Somehow, though, Herzog managed to get special permission from the French Minister of Culture to document everything the cave had to offer on film (using specially designed 3D cameras: see review addendum).  Even though he was granted very, very special access to the site, Herzog and his scant film crew (comprised of only three people with him: a cinematographer, sound man, and an assistant) were placed under very tight restrictions.  Everyone inside had to wear special suits and shoes and make no contact whatsoever with anything in the cave; time spent in the cave had to be limited to a few hours per day due to near-toxic levels of radon and carbon dioxide; only battery powered equipment could be used including lights that gave off as little heat as possible; and Herzog alone was only granted six shooting days inside.  So, in essence, the French take this sight with the utmost seriousness. 


One of the Chauvet cave paintings

And so they should.  The subterranean world Herzog covers feels both ethereally not-of-this-world, yet warmly familiar: the cultures that envisioned and dreamed of this oftentimes beautiful work are, of course, thousands of years removed from modern day culture, but humans nonetheless were responsible for them.  When the film does not lovingly linger on some of the hundreds of renderings – which are incredibly pristine despite their age and remarkably realistic despite the crude techniques used forged them - we have Hezog’s presence front and center as a hypnotically inviting narrator.  He tries to come to grips with not only the magnitude of such a find, but he also offers a gently contemplative dissertation on the very meaning the works have for both culture that created them and the culture now that has discovered them.  Lesser filmmakers would have just fixed their camera on the paintings and let the scientists do most of the talking, but Herzog wants to know what these paintings have to say about the human condition.  That’s a lot more ambition than most docs. 

That’s what makes CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS rise well above the more conventional and traditional aspects of the doc format: Herzog may have a habit of engaging in massive, idiosyncratic hyperbole with his metaphysical ramblings at times, but he is never a dull narrator and he really strives to look beneath the façades of these exquisite works of art.  He wants to know how they were made and the people that made them.  It’s easy to gaze at the relative simplicity of the paintings and overlook their far-reaching implications: the cave proves that artistic ambition is not a new human phenomenon: there were indeed people 32,000 years ago that felt the need to be creative and soulful and what they saw around them and influenced them.  That, in itself, is sort of awe-inspiring. 

The art has a splendor and refinement that a lay person may not believe possible for cultures of the distant past.  It’s kind of astonishing what scientists are able to infer from their exhaustive studies of these cave wall murals.  The artists that made these works used, for example, techniques that have never been seen before in other cave paintings.  In some instances, it appears that the walls of the caves were pre-scrapped to create a better natural canvas to paint on.  Then there are other examples that highlight how the painters created a multi-dimensional quality to their works for how they outlined the individual figures.  Perhaps even more incredible is how some of the paintings suggest dynamic movement for the ways motion lines on animals suggest movement, almost akin to what you’d see in comic book panels or cartoons.  These painters, it could be argued, were the first animators. 

There are other endlessly compelling details that the doc explores, like the fact that almost no representations of the human form (sans one that depicts a partial Venus figure that shows genitals and legs) are apparent in the cave and that the animal variety presented is remarkable (we get everything from lions, panthers, bears, owls, hyenas, and bison).  Then there are the more abstract markings scattered throughout, one that shows a large wall painting comprised of handprints.  Extraordinarily, scientists and art experts were able to infer from the hand markings that they were done by one man with one bent digit and, considering the scale of the piece, he had to have been rather tall. 

It’s those touches that ultimately make CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS so continuously engaging: Herzog provides a rare glimpse into our very distant past by given us a breathtaking collage of images captured from the Chauvet Cave, but he simultaneously has a deeply resonating and penetrating theme he wants to present.  People driven by artistic aims is a universal human inclination that crosses massive expanses of time that, both yesterday and today, says something indelible about our thoughts, beliefs, and what we feel is significant about the relative world we inhabit.  I was expecting a much dryer and more prosaic talking-heads documentary on the subject, but CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS emerges as something wholeheartedly more soulful and thoughtful.  You will be in awe of the art presented itself, but it will also allow you to profoundly muse over its intended meaning.  

It’s like the best 90- minute art history class/field trip ever.


The press screening that I attended for CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS did not present it in 3D.  It should be noted that Herzog himself – a typically outspoken critic of the multi-dimensional format – shot the film specifically with it in mind.  The director has stated that he wanted to use 3D to better suggest the spatial reality of the cave paintings and the surfaces they were painted on.  Although I can’t quite comment on the quality of the 3D presentation of the film, I will say that you will most likely not lose much in seeing CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS in the glorious clarity that is 2D.


REVIEW ADDENDUM 2 - December 16, 2011

I recently was able to finally screen a 3D version of the film, which has forced me to re-evaluate my previous comments about how viewing it with multi-dimensional visuals would not improve the viewing experience. I found myself even more immersed within the extraordinary tapestry and richness of the Chauvet paintings on my second screening and now have come to more fully appreciate how Herzog utilized 3D to create a more tactile sense of the spaces within the caves. This is one of the rare cases where I will concede that 3D has actually enhanced the viewing experience of a film.  My initial three and a half star rating of the 2D version stands as is, but the 3D version is most definitely a four star effort.

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