Consider the length of a human life, and all of the achievements one is likely to witness in that time. Start small: your own achievements, be they academic, athletic, romantic. Now think a little larger, to the achievements of people you know. Continue to expand to your neighbourhood, city, nation, and, ultimately the world as a whole. How many of our supposedly wondrous accomplishments are truly significant? What will future historians remember about early twentieth century humankind? Will anything be remembered in 1,000 years? 10,000?
Is it possible that 30,000 years from now, discoveries will continue to be made about us?
Such questions likely never occurred to Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994 as they descended into what would soon be named Chauvet Cave in the south of France. What they found inside, perhaps the most important cultural artifact in human history, is the subject of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the latest film from celebrated director Werner Herzog.
As Herzog explains through voice-over (in his typical, gravitas filled fashion), upon the discovery of dozens of magnificent cave paintings dating back approximately 32,000 years, twice as ancient as any previously discovered cave art, the French government placed the cave in lock down in the interests of preservation, and rightfully so. However, because of the intense security of the site, it’s likely that the majority of people are all but totally unaware of the cave’s existence. Herzog clearly wishes to change that, and for Cave of Forgotten Dreams the eclectic filmmaker gained unprecedented access to film the interior of Chauvel Cave, in 3-D no less, and the result is a film that will undoubtedly become required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in evolution, ancient history, or (as seems to be most crucial for Herzog), the development of that most unique of human pursuits: the arts.
Indeed, to call the cave paintings anything but art is to do them a disservice. Perfectly preserved by a landslide some 20,000 years ago which sealed Chauvel Cave, the paintings are crafted with a remarkable level of skill and precision. Although basic in nature, the anatomy of the menagerie of creatures (bears, rhinoceros, horses and lions to name a few) shows an accuracy that is difficult to comprehend given the massive span of time that has passed since they were created. Herzog’s camera lovingly dwells on each piece, really allowing us to see the highly sophisticated level of detail, and, incredibly, to begin to comprehend the unknown artist’s process.
It’s easy to get swept up into the majesty of the subject matter, yet Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a film that demands attention for another reason, being one of the rare examples of a non-Hollywood 3-D production. And believe me, if you have the opportunity, seeing this film in 3-D is an experience you are unlikely to forget. Understandably, given the difficulties surrounding the location and delicate nature of the subject, the effect is at times a little hit-and-miss, but the moments when it does hit are more eye-popping than any 3-D Hollywood blockbuster in its entirety. The extra dimension displays the texture and contours of the cave walls in a way that only a handful of people have been fortunate enough to see first-hand. Herzog, with characteristic eloquence, discusses the “staging of landscape as an operatic event”, and uses the technology at his disposal to follow the progression of art works through every bump and crevice. Add in the excellent use of fairly rudimentary lighting and the histrionic, discordant score, and the panels of paintings take on a wonderfully cinematic life of their own. Few filmmakers understand the dramatic potential of documentary filmmaking better than Herzog, and it’s hard to imagine any other director filming Chauvet Cave with quite the same level of panache.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams simply cannot be recommended highly enough. As an examination of some of mankind’s earliest artworks yet discovered, there is nothing more fascinating or comprehensive available, and with the added factor of original and experimental use of 3-D that is actually worth the extra cost of admission, Herzog delivers one of the most uniquely interesting pieces of cinema of the year.