Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Directed by Werner Herzog

Art, along with music and language, which both can be conceived as artistic, is one of the few things that set humans apart as being able to communicate feelings, emotions, and stories. Art dates back to the beginning of time, though recorded history only goes so far back. So when three French hikers uncovered the Chauvet caves in 1994, a whole new story of the history of man and of art unfolded. And now renowned documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World) affords everybody the ability to witness the breathtaking rock art that is not thousands of years old, but rather tens of thousands of years old, and kept in pristine condition by the wonder of mother nature.

There are limitations, however, to Herzog’s ability to tell this story. For one, the cave itself presents a difficult place to shoot a film. It is small, dark, and for conservation purposes, only a few film crew members are allowed in at one time. As a result the film is shot with small, handheld cameras and the limitation of the lack of light makes discovering the full beauty of the cave difficult. But the limits of the light is what the ancient humans must have had to work with in their time, with only torches to light their way in the dark cave, which makes their artwork that much more remarkable and extraordinary.

Herzog also utilizes the technique of 3D in this film, though at times it can be a headache as it often is for many people. The opening of the film, for instance, is quite disorienting as the audience is first introduced to this foreign world in which Herzog delights us for the next 90 minutes. But Herzog uses 3D, a strange choice when working with handheld cameras in the small confines of a cave, as just another tool to express his utter curiosity with the art inside the Chauvet caves. He attempts to mirror the contour of the caves on which the ancient people had to work by showing the audience the caves in 3D. It works only marginally while it is a complete headache sometimes.

Werner Herzog is a great storyteller and that is what makes this film worthwhile. In the case of the Chauvet caves, the story is not known; it is a history which can only be guessed at with the various evidence that is uncovered in the cave. But anyone with a curiosity like Herzog’s is bound to find every way possible to explore what the caves have to offer. He goes off on tangents with some of the interviewees, like the master perfumer who uses his great sense of smell to smell out the caves. He also discusses the spiritual nature of humans with an archaeologist who tells a story of an Australian aboriginal who claims he is not painting on the wall, but rather it is the hand of the spirits. And as only Werner Herzog could do, the audience is treated to albino crocodiles.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about Herzog’s curiosity of nature, religion, art, and the human race in general. It does not always work, but the subject matter alone is enough to carry the film, which is why the film soars in every way humanly possible when Herzog closes the film by simply showing the audience the remarkably beautiful art that has survived untouched and pristine in the Chauvet caves for tens of thousands of years, looking like it was painted only yesterday. And in one final interview, it is pointed out that the art inside the cave is not dissimilar to the filmmaker’s contribution to the story of the human race and its ability to artistically express themselves.

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