“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” – Herzog’s Musings on Paleolithic Cave Paintings


For the past four-and-a-half decades, legendary German film-maker Wernor Herzog has taken us to strangest places. He introduced us to the screen’s craziest man, Klaus Kinski; taken part in a bet with documentary film-maker Errol Morris and ate his shoe, when he lost the bet; he is said to have hypnotized his cast for “Heart of Glass” (1976); and through weird close-ups, he has asked us bizarre, indigestible questions. In “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010), he does what he always does best – delivering a one of a kind art and history lesson.

In 1994, in the valley near France’s Ardeche River, three French Spelunkers stumbled upon a cave, which turned out to be humankind’s oldest art gallery. The cave’s walls, now known as ‘Chauvet Cave’ are covered with 32,000 year old expressive charcoal paintings by pre-historic artists. The images of horses, mammoths, lions and reindeer adorn the glistening rocks. Immediately after the re-discovery of the cave, French government sealed off the cave with an iron door and only permitted a selected few. Every year, in the spring, archaeological teams conduct studies in and around the cave. Knowing this, Herzog and his crew charmed the French Ministry of Culture and became the first filmmaker to be permitted to shoot inside the cave.


The four-member Herzog crew (including himself) was only allowed for an hour or two per day. And, once inside they must stick to the two-foot-wide walkway (in order to protect surrounding bones, and well-preserved tracks of early humans and cave bears). They took take great pains to document the paintings in close detail, since they have to operate a small 3D-camera rig and three battery-powered light sources only from the walkway. Under the dark chamber, filled with stalactites, a wonderland of Paleolithic cave paintings could be seen. The drawings are of different animal species, ranging from horses to extinct lions and bison. The curvatures of the cave’s rocks are used to give the drawings, an illusion of movement. Herzog’s voice over comments these curvature paintings as ‘a form of proto-cinema.’ Human forms are absent in the paintings, except for a bizarre image of inter-species mating.


Meanwhile, Herzog also meets various Paleontologists and art experts to provide some background to the paintings. Given, Herzog’s skeptical attitude and sense of mischief, these interviews lightly mock the Chauvet’s resident scientists. Herzog’s movie or documentary characters always feature humans with obsessions and delusions. So, in those interviews his intent is always to bring out the scientists’ inner fixations and their spiritual viewpoints. He also uses the perplexing images as a launching point to discuss his musings on mortality and asks the incontestable question, “What does it mean to be human?” He contemplates how these Cro-Magnons formed a desire to express themselves through an available artistic device. In an off-the-wall epilogue, he finds a group of albino alligators, living in close proximity to the Chauvet caves, and manages to draw parallels between these creatures and the paintings of galloping horses and others inside the caves. Yeah, at times this wild excitement of Herzog’s becomes too much to bear, but he eventually quiets down a lot, giving us ample time to ponder over the paintings.

Deployed with purpose and beauty, Werner Herzog’s eccentric “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (87 minutes) not only captures the 32,000 year old cave arts, but also tries to contemplate those pre-historic men’s ideas and passions.


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