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More than being a documentary about a prehistoric cave and its pristine art, Werner Herzog's 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' is a philosophical treatise with this ancient time capsule as its case study - and what a case study it is.
In December 1994, a small band of explorers discovered a narrow shaft built into a cliff in southern France. Deep inside, they made out a tableaux of drawings submerged within the pitch dark, sketched onto the walls. These drawings are up to 32,000 years old, their astonishingly fresh condition preserved by a landfall which sealed what was originally a cave. Depicting horses, lions, goats, bison and human echoes, they are the oldest record of human art in the world.
Werner Herzog, ever audacious and inventive, secured the permission of the French government to enter the caves and film there. Herzog and his crew are among the mere dozens of scientists and historians to gain access to this delicate environment since 1994, and as they descend into its yawning depths it's as if they've entered a parallel universe, the silence of which is intoxicating.
What Herzog finds among the clusters of drawings, fossils and footprints is the innate artistic disposition of humans. The drawings, so intensely vivid, are evidence that this timeless disposition was just as sophisticated then as it is now, reflecting impressions of the circumstances and environments in which human beings found themselves at that point in time.
The film itself is a point in hand. Although these drawings seem to speak to us - not least on an emotional level - what they were intended to mean will remain a mystery; we can only use our imaginations to fill in the blanks and paint our own dreamscape. Or, as Herzog puts it, the people who frequented these caves were our doppelgangers. Over such an abyss of time, narrowed only by the refracted image we see through the porthole of the caves, all we have is the drawings to make the assumption that they were like us, living, dreaming and hoping.
This eerie reality is what makes 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' so mysterious, haunting and elating. Herzog's decision to pad out his treatise with 3-D is a powerful complement to this, enhancing every contour and shadow. Similarly, his decision to illustrate his treatise with the backdrop of the caves is probably one of the most powerful ways in which his central argument has ever been made.
-- Originally published on http://agitatedair.wordpress.com/2012/02/ by yours truly in February 2012 --
My boyfriend is a massive Werner Herzog fan and when he pitched this film to me as a night out watching a 3d documentary about cave paintings I must admit I scoffed and whinged about how that was the most boring thing I could think of. However I have had to eat a massive slice of humble pie as The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is simply the most stunning thing I have seen on film.
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary by renowned film maker Werner Herzog in which he gains exclusive access to the Chavet Caves of Southern France. The caves were only discovered in 1994 and the secrets they held have remained preserved for over 35000 years. The documentary sees Werner and a small team go into the caves to film the beautiful cave paintings that have been hidden from the world for thousands of years.
Fans of Herzog will know that he never lakes things easy for himself. As the site is of such archaeological importance very few people are allowed inside and this is the first time a film maker has been given access. The site is so delicate that Herzog was only allowed to take in a small team, using hand held cameras and lights (Werner himself has to act as light man), they could only access the caves on a small metal walk way and were not allowed to touch anything. This is Werner Herzogs first 3d film.
I went to see this film at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle in 3d. I have to say this is the first time I have seen a 3d film where it felt that the 3d aspect was necessary. The 3d is amazing - from the first entry into the cave the walls close in on you. This makes it feel like you are there with them - essential as this is a place that you will almost definitely never be able to experience for real. However the most important aspect of the 3d was to convey the amazing ways the painters had used the shape of the walls as integral parts of the paintings. Bulges in the cave walls were used to depict the bulges of a lions shoulder or the hide of a bison. They had used the contours of the cave to bring to life the myriad of animals they were portraying. It also instils a desire to reach out and touch the walls of the cave but of course like the film makers we cannot. That said Herzog naughtily tips a cheeky nod to the medium of 3d by throwing in a spear throwing scene with what he regards comically as a rather inept spear thrower.
The film is lit solely by hand held lighting that dances around the cave adding to the feeling that you are not just watching the film but are in it. The soundtrack is very limited and at one point we are invited to listen to the music of the cave as everyone becomes silent - were are told you may just be able to hear your own heart beat.
I found this film simply mind blowing it was just too much for my little brain to comprehend that these paintings were 35000 years old. The paintings were as fresh as if they were painted yesterday. I had expected to see some primitive daubs but this was something else, every picture is beautifully detailed and reveals a past long forgotten - at one point were are informed that there had long been debate about whether or not the lions that had long died out in this region had manes, it is clear from the paintings that the did not, no amount of looking at skeletons could have revealed such information. The paintings have an amazing animation about them, they seem to jump off the walls and Herzog regards the painters use of drawing animals with super imposed legs as "proto cinema".
In addition to examining the paintings the film brilliantly speculates upon the characters who existed in the caves. We follow one of the painters around the cave by his distinctive hand print which has a crooked little finger. We also see the foot print of a child in front of that of a wolf, we are asked to speculate whether this child was the soon to be victim of the wolf, did they walk side by side as friends or were they simply there thousands of years apart? The walls still bear the black scars of the torches of the inhabitants alongside the deep claw marks of the bears who also inhabited the caves at some point in history.
The film itself is of course narrated by the unmistakeably hypnotic tones of Herzog himself. He takes us on a magical journey into what he himself describes as "the beginnings of the modern human soul". Herzogs own awe at what he is seeing palpable and you cannot help join him in sheer astonishment at what you are seeing.
I really cannot recommend this film enough it is completely breath taking. It was a priviledge to be given access to such an amazing part of history.