Old Masters

film_caveStunning prehistoric art highlights ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’

Werner Herzog explores two of his favorite themes in his stunning new documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams: human obsessions, and the forbidding grandeur of Nature. Understand, the film itself is not all that exceptional; some crucial factual details apparently don’t interest Herzog enough to include them, and we are treated to some of the director’s offbeat ruminations that prove more bewildering than profound. However, the subject of the film is stunning, a recently discovered, 30,000-year-old cave buried under a massive rockslide in rural France that contains the earliest known wall paintings made by human hands.

Chauvet Cave, in southern France, is named for one of the three hiker/spelunkers who discovered it in 1994, feeling their way along a rocky hillside for drafts of cold air that would indicate an open space within the rock. Inside, they discovered a multi-chamber cave whose walls were covered with animal drawings; they are now thought to be some 32,000 years old, twice as old as the famous Lascaux Cave paintings discovered in 1940. The French government stepped in to construct  narrow steel walkways providing very limited access to the cave interiors. In 2010, a team of archaeologists, historians, art experts, paleontologists, and other researchers descended into the cave to collect data, with Herzog’s four-person film crew in tow.

The walls of the cave aren’t flat or smooth, but contoured and bumpy, often sloping away under extreme overhangs of rock. For this reason, Herzog decided to shoot the film in 3D, certainly the most (if not only) valid reason for the technique I’ve seen yet. It allows Herzog to capture the depth and mystery of images glimpsed in shadowy recesses, sprawling across uneven surfaces, or slithering around corners. (Claustrophobics, beware, it really does feel like descending into a cave.) Sequences outside can be annoying and disorienting (in the opening shot, the camera speeds through a vineyard like Luke Skywalker strafing the Death Star), but 3D captures the cave interiors with breathtaking fidelity.

Researchers estimate that some 20,000 years ago, the rock face above the cave slid down to seal it off, creating “a perfect time capsule” within. The images look freshly done, extraordinary in their sense of movement and wild spirit. They are mostly representations of the creatures who shared the wild landscape with the early humans of the era—woolly mammoths, horses, bison, bears, lions, woolly rhinos, antelope. (Their weirdly sparkling calcified bones still litter the cave floor.) And the renderings are done with astonishing skill, suggesting a very sophisticated observer (or more; some overlapping suggests multiple artists who may have lived 5,000 years apart).

Artists often makes use of the shape of the wall for effect. A quartet of horse heads, whickering in alarm, arch across a promontory above a pair of rhinos locking horns. A bison is painted with eight legs, to suggest movement when viewed by flickering torchlight. (“Proto-cinema,” Herzog calls the animation-like effect.) One alcove is decorated with red splotches, each bearing the same handprint, which may or may not be an artist’s “signature.” The only other humanoid image is the fertility symbol of a woman’s pubic area, with a masculine bison head superimposed over part of it.

Everything inside the cave is fascinating. Outside, the film loses its grip on our imaginations as Herzog wanders about chatting up dotty scientists, or a perfumer hoping to sniff out another hidden cave, or delivering a strange coda about albino crocodiles breeding at a nearby nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, Herzog never bothers to investigate whether it was coals from the fire or some other media the artists might have used in creating these enduring works. (A photo exists in the online publicity for the film of a scientist holding a bit of charcoal and a smooth rubbing stone, an explanation that apparently got left on the cutting-room floor.)

But these are minor complaints next to the chance to see these magical images, hypnotic in their simple film_caveofdreamspower. While Herzog worries over these distant artists’ impulses (“Will we ever understand?” he frets), a young archaeologist suggests that among “primitive” people, the hand of the artist is thought to be guided by the spirits. I have another idea: art is its own reward. What’s not to understand?


★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

A film by Werner Herzog. An IFC Films release. Not rated. 90 minutes.

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