Culture > Documentary
Marc Valessela/IFC Films

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Documentary | German director Werner Herzog creeps deep into Chauvet Cave in southern France

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

In a film that blends paleontological wonders with existential pondering, Cave of Forgotten Dreams asks the question, "What constitutes humanness?" German director Werner Herzog creeps deep into Chauvet Cave in southern France, where researchers say they have found the earliest known cave paintings. The charcoal paintings etched on the curved walls of the cave-some say from 32,000 B.C., others say 10,000 B.C.-look as though someone scratched them there last week.

A landslide sealed the cave thousands of years ago, creating a perfectly preserved time capsule until explorers discovered it in 1994. Only a few scientists are allowed inside, and Herzog labored under a set of strict rules to preserve the cave's delicate environment. He had to use battery-powered cameras and lights that did not give off heat. The film crew was forbidden to step off a 2-foot-wide walkway and could only stay in the cave for a few hours at a time. Despite the logistical difficulties, the film is a cinematic tour de force. Herzog uses light and shadow to create the illusion of a flickering torch on a cave wall, just as the painters would have seen it long ago. The filming elevates 3D to true artistry, giving shape and depth to the curves and contours of the cave wall. The paintings are more fluid and full of life and movement than medieval paintings thousands of years later.

There's a sense that these ancestors were not the hulking, empty-headed cavemen often portrayed but souls with the urge to communicate and represent the wonders of their world. The paleontologists and archaeologists approach the paintings with awe, dreaming about the lives and hopes of the people who created them. "It is," says narrator Herzog, "as if the modern human soul had awakened here."

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