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April 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Warner Herzog’s latest documentary is an immersive 3D experience

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The Chauvet Cave in southern France, discovered in 1994, contains the oldest cave paintings ever found, going back more than 30,000 years. (Think, roughly, of the timespan between Moses and us, then multiply by ten.) Access to the cave has been severely limited, but filmmaker Werner Herzog is a very persuasive man. Thanks to his efforts, the good graces of the French Ministry of Culture, and the marvels of 3D technology, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (now showing in limited release) takes us inside this time-capsule, littered with bones, where the tracks of cave bears are still visible, and where the presence of our distant yet not-so-distant ancestors is uncannily strong.

I saw this film with my wife, Wendy, who tends toward claustrophobia. The 3D experience is so immersive, I was afraid she might flee the theater. But it turned out that she was entirely absorbed by the images on the walls of the cave: horses, bears, panthers, rhinos, and many more. There are handprints, too, made by a man with a crooked little finger (his inadvertent signature). The film shifts at intervals to locations outside the cave: views of the ruggedly beautiful surrounding terrain, glimpses of the nearby lab where researchers studying the cave are based, and conversations with a few of these scientists—even a quick trip, late in the film, to Germany, where parallel investigations are going on. (Here we see a flute made of bone, discovered in Swabia in 2008, dating to a period contemporary with the paintings at Chauvet, and hear a tune played on a copy of it.)

As usual, Herzog himself, who narrates the film and engages in dialogue with researchers, is an intrusive presence, often charming, quirky, sometimes exasperating. Meditating on the paintings, he soars from eloquence into hyperbole, then lurches into jokeyness, as if embarrassed by his own effusions. (The accompanying music tracks the narrative, one moment over the top, the next moment hauntingly evocative.) The film concludes with a bizarre postscript that is pure Herzog.

Throughout the narrative, but especially toward the end, Herzog dances around the numinous. We come to an altar-like stone on which the skull of a cave bear was carefully placed many thousands of years ago, facing what was then the entrance to the cave. It requires conscious effort to talk about such matters without mentioning God, whose unacknowledged reality is nevertheless palpable here, where people like us painted by torchlight 30,000 years ago.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one of the year’s best documentaries, was recently named a Truly Moving Picture by Heartland Truly Moving Pictures. Here’s the trailer:

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

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