Cave of Forgotten Dreams (IFC Films, NR)

Herzog’s team came up with some remarkable footage that gives you a sense of actually being in the cave.



In 1994 Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Christian Hilaire were hunting for caves in southern France. A current of air drew their attention and led them to a limestone cave, now known as the Chauvet cave, rich in animal paintings dating back 20,000-30,000 years. The cave was remarkably well preserved thanks to a rock fall that sealed the cave’s opening and protected it from both weather and human encroachment for thousands of years.

You might say the Chauvet cave is the archeological equivalent of King Tut’s tomb, a time capsule from an ancient civilization full of marvelous things preserved from damage thanks, in this case, to an accident of nature. Unlike Tutankhamun’s tomb, however, modern-day scientists have chosen preservation over predation and strictly limited access to the Chauvet cave in order to prevent damage due to moisture from visitors’ breath as well as the inevitable wear and tear caused when large numbers of people enter a fragile environment.

So you probably won’t be visiting the Chauvet cave any time soon, but you can do the next best thing: see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a feature documentary including much footage shot in the Chauvet cave along with interviews with scientists studying there. Herzog achieved a great coup in gaining access to the cave, although under numerous restrictions; among other things his crew was limited in terms of time in the cave and the amount of lighting they could use, and they also had to remain at all times on a narrow walkway laid down over the cave floor. Despite these restrictions, or perhaps because of them (there’s nothing like boundaries to focus the mind), Herzog’s team came up with some remarkable footage that gives you a sense of actually being in the cave.

It’s impossible to overstate the beauty of the Chauvet paintings: horses, rhinos, bison, and many other species flow around the curved walls of the caves along with more abstract markings, handprints, and a strange figure that seems to have the upper body of a bull and the lower body of a woman (Minotaur analogies, anyone?). The cave itself is also beautiful; left undisturbed for millennia, the natural formations have an amazing delicacy, some resembling rippling cloth and others needle-like deposits that appear to have been carved from ivory. Layer upon layer of deposited calcite creates shimmering surfaces that cover rock formations and bear skulls alike (there is evidence of bears inhabiting the cave, although humans seemed to have used it only on a temporary basis, possibly for ritual purposes).

I’m not usually a fan of 3D filmmaking, and I’m still of two minds after seeing this film. In some sections it works marvelously, particularly in the opening shots of a French vineyard and in some of the scenes in the cave, but in others it is distracting to almost comical effect. In particular the aboveground interviews with some of the scientific experts (let’s call them the tribe of the laptops or perhaps the tribe of the polar fleece) felt like we were looking through glass at a living diorama created by a hologram or an enactment of a stereopticon image. Very weird, in other words, and not helpful in terms of focusing attention on what these learned men and women had to say. For reasons not clear to me, and which served no purpose in the film, sometimes the three-dimensional aspect of the image appeared to jut outwards from the screen (Look out! Rock face attaching at two o’clock!), while at other times the apparent depth was all behind the surface of the screen. Maybe this is something filmmakers will learn to control better in the future, but I’m not looking forward to seeing a serious drama done in 3D any time soon.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is worth seeing because it’s the closest you’ll ever get to the interior of the Chauvet cave, but it’s a far from perfect film. For one thing it should have been entitled "Werner Herzog Makes a Film About Caves," because the director is a constant and overpowering presence, persistently making absurd speculations and pronouncements about the cave in the absence of any real information. Also much of the film is actually about making the film, not about the cave that is its ostensible subject. The interviews with experts frequently border on the tedious and self-promoting (although I would have liked to hear more from that fellow who used to be a juggler in the circus) and there’s a coda about albino alligators, which in retrospect, can only be explained as Werner being Werner. | Sarah Boslaugh


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