Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Film, Documentaries
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Cave of Forgotten Dreams
In recent documentary features like ‘Grizzly Man’, ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ and ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, Werner Herzog has probed the ecstatic yet futile aspirations of men to commune with the terrible sublime: animals, landscape, the cosmos. (With ‘Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans’ he also explored the possibility of connecting Nicolas Cage to the real world. That one didn’t really fly either.)

His latest, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’, also presents a gulf that cannot be crossed, though this one is perhaps more tantalising as it separates us not from an ineffable other but from our own past. The beauty of the cave paintings at Chauvet in the south of France is more or less impossible to get your head around. Painted over a 10,000-year period starting 35,000 years ago, they are older than some geological formations around them, yet possess an immediacy and sophistication that feels fresh and vivid. In many ways, the minds that made them must be like our own, yet we cannot hope to access the world they represent.

The images are fragile and the caves hazardous. The French government granted Herzog and a skeleton crew a few short days’ access, during which they shot in 3D. The reasons for this choice are clear: generally, stereoscopic shooting is well-suited to express the physicality of confined spaces; specifically, and crucially, these paintings use the topography of the cave walls in expressive, almost sculptural harmony with their subjects. The lines used to make a horse, bear or panther are quite beautiful in themselves but their interaction with the three-dimensional surfaces on which they appear – the way a cove hides anxious prey or a bulging wall becomes a puffed-out chest – is crucial to conveying their power. The film finds other uses for the technology too, from a startling CG wire-frame model of the cave complex to heaving close-ups of ancient figurines; from the flight of a remote-controlled plane to a spear lobbed at the camera in a paleontologically correct nod at vintage 3D sensationalism.

Herzog stamps his presence on the film through his now familiar style of narration, a mixture of awe and scepticism, humility and wit. His own questing sensibility becomes all the more pivotal given the lack – unusual for a Herzog picture – of an identifiable obsessive-hubristic protagonist. He does, however, exercise his skill in finding delightfully peculiar interview subjects – in this case researchers ranging from a perfumier who brings his expert nose to bear on the caves’ history to an experimental archaeologist dressed in reindeer fur who demonstrates a prehistoric flute.

But such contextual material can only dimly, flickeringly illuminate the lost world of these remarkable images. In the caves, Herzog notes, ‘Time and space lose their meaning.’ Inevitably bound by both, his film is as close to their beauty as we will ever get.

By: Ben Walters


Release details

Rated: U
Release date: Friday March 25 2011
Duration: 90 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Werner Herzog

Average User Rating

3.6 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:5
  • 4 star:0
  • 3 star:0
  • 2 star:1
  • 1 star:2
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Sublime, eerie, haunting.  I got this a week ago on BluRay but really wish I'd seen it in 3D.  I've already watched it 4 times - I can't stop thinking about it!  The time scales are incredibly difficult to fathom.  Makes our current main religions look insignificant. 

The soundtrack is perfectly matched to the dreamlike otherworldliness of the paintings, the natural cave formations and the documentary.

Obviously divisive - there are a couple of weak points -but who cares!   It's about the caves and what's in them.  And the timescale.  

If anyones ever going to read this ... or remotely care!... - the point of the 'Stars & Stripes' tune isn't to show how great the flute is, it's to demonstrate that they had a similar tonal system (ie. modern western scale) as we do - which is pretty incredible.

Incredible, thought provoking and beautiful to watch. One of Herzog's greatest cinematic achievements. A must see for documentary fans and Herzog fans alike!

Incredible, thought provoking and beautiful to watch. One of Herzog's greatest cinematic achievements. A must see for documentary fans and Herzog fans alike!

One star for the 3D visual experience, zero stars for the content. It is a truly amazing experience to have the brief glimpse into some of what was going on in the human mind some 30 – 40 thousand years ago. The 3D experience is as close we will ever get, since these caves are accessed only by a privileged few. Herzog and his crew had that privilege for a few hours or so. Conveniently for them, an elaborate metal pathway was already constructed, so elaborate in fact, that the workers went into the trouble of shaping the pathway around some of the stalagmites, and so one has to assume that these workers had a greater privilege yet, as this sure must had taken days to construct. The cave paintings not only leave us in awe, but they also leave us with questions, questions about our own nature and how it all began. This is where we get to the disappointing part of the movie. Not that we should expect any of these questions to be answered, but one would hope for some interesting information, something that the lucky scientist and historians have figured out already. But, all we really get is just a parade of circus scientists. I choose the word circus, not only because one of the “scientist/historian� had circus training, but it really wasn’t much more than that. Herzog’s seemingly Attenborough-like narrative, is disappointingly short on the Attenborough-like informative power. His choice of selecting imperial measurements units (miles, feet) in his narrative also reminds us, who helped to finance this project - US History Channel. Beyond the awe expressed by everyone participating in the production, what kind of interesting information do we get ? Well, we have our circus scientist who leaves us with a magical conclusion that we are best to interpret these painting as the work of the spirits. Another scientist is so taken aback that he even proposes to rename our species from homo sapiens to homo religious. The evidence for that ? Well, I did not see it - they showed it to us from a limited angle and it required a lot of imagination, but apparently among all the paintings of animals they also found one that kinda resembles a half Venus figurine, half bison. Then, we have a guy/scientist dressed in deer skin who “whistles� for us, through a replica of a caveman’s flute, the Star Spangled Banner tune, wow. I’m saying whistles, because the melody seemed to have been produced before it entered the flute. We also have another scientist who throws a spear, several times in fact, and then, himself, concludes he would have no chance in life of killing anything. And, to amaze us even more, we have a perfume maker who goes around these caves and smells them. From his acute sense of smell (he is well in his 60s) he then recreates (in his mind) what it would have been like to be one of the cave painters, 30 thousand years ago (in the time of the last Ice Age). Mr. Herzog then concludes this circus parade with a global warming commentary, looking at the cave paintings through the eyes of an albino crocodile - this is not a joke. One might laugh about it, but it left me seriously worried about my human heritage and the people I have to rely on to access it and to study it. What a shame.

Wonderful film, with a truly Herzogian vision. And what an ending. Only he would come up with this extended philosophical essay. And the only film I have seen which uses 3D for a good artistic reason, and to great effect.

Wonderful film, with a truly Herzogian vision. And what an ending. Only he would come up with this extended philosophical essay. And the only film I have seen which uses 3D for a good artistic reason, and to great effect.

I'm not sure what the big deal is here: the cave, the latest movie by art-house maestro Werner Herzog, or the fact that the picture is in 3D and it's not a blockbuster? The film constantly reminded me of a worthy but fairly dull ethnographic documentary that could have been made in the 1950's, except it's overlayed with a lot of quasi-mystical music and Herzog's weird voiceover calling up all kinds of nutty stuff from bone flutes to albino crocodiles. On the plus side we do get to see the oldest paintings in the world, which are quite genuinely stunning. And because the cave has to remain sealed-off from people nearly all of the time I'm glad that someone as constantly in awe of the world as Herzog had a few weeks to capture the art.