Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an ode to the Chauvet Cave in France, a cavern that harbors prehistoric art. Herzog narrates the film in his raspy voice, nearly whispering with reverence. The interviews, the light on the walls, and Ernst Reijseger’s gorgeous, sacred score all attempt to convey the significance of this discovery. The devout tone might strike some as too serious, but, as the movie unfolds, one understands why the filmmakers are struck with such awe.
The movie is not without its mischievous moments. Herzog concludes the film with crocodiles and interviews a wide range of experts, from paleontologists to a perfumer. The interview subjects reflect on the the remarkable preservation of the art, the meaning of this finding, and the scientific challenges involved in studying it. Herzog also makes clear how difficult and unusual it is to film in the Chauvet Cave, a delicate site that has been preserved for thousands of years.
The cave itself is a work of art, a glittering cavern that resembles an alien world. Animal bones and archaic footprints litter the floor, and marvelous illustrations line the walls. These artists painted about thirty thousand years ago, a time when mammoths, horses, lions, and rhinoceros lived in frozen France. They incorporated the contours of the walls into their drawings, which strike archaeologists as spiritual representations with mythological implications. Herzog takes time to film these stunning images with and without commentary.*
Those who created these pictures lived in a very different world, yet their compositions remain so vivid. They were initially thought to be fake. Those who study the cave describe its profound effect on their psyches and suggest it’s as though these ancient ghosts are reaching out to us through the paintings. They have left a metaphysical indent. Prehistorian Jean Clottes says that the term homo sapiens, the man who knows–we don’t really know much, Clottes smiles–is a less appropriate name for humans than homo spiritualis.
Cave celebrates this cathedral of creativity and invention, as mysterious as it is moving. It is a communication with ancient culture, a connection to ancient being. The film urges the audience to feel wonder. Faced with such a magnificent demonstration of human development and expression, how could we feel anything else?
*The pacing reminded me of the similarly slow but beautiful Russian Ark, a movie that takes viewers through a dream of human history in a single, uninterrupted shot. That movie is also available on Netflix streaming.