Cave of Forgotten Dreams

June, 2011, Documentary

Directed by:Werner Herzog


On September 5th, German writer/producer/director will celebrate his 70th birthday - - and it’s hard to imagine anyone in film capable of matching his creative output over the past half century. Author of 51 screenplays, director of brilliant dramas (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, The Wrath of God) gripping action pieces (Rescue Dawn) and producer of operas in the temples of that art form (Bayreuth in Germany and La Scale in Milan) this peripatetic artist’s most recent gig provided the voice for a character on television’s popular animated series The Simpsons. What else could the man possibly do?

Answer: provide filmgoers with over 25 idiosyncratic documentaries, made for both large screen and small, the latest of which is this masterpiece of exploration/explanation/rumination about the drawings in the French cave now known as Chauvet, after the man who discovered it. Herzog received permission from the French government to visit this remarkable cavern to record what has been acknowledged as the earliest known example of human artistic expression. Employing a tiny crew of 3, (who were allowed only 4 hours to film in 3-D) Herzog, his two cameraman and a  lighting technician wash the cave walls with eerie brilliance, enlivening what appear to be endless depictions of animals. (When the cave was first uncovered, some of the drawings were deemed to be fantasies - - but subsequent scientific evidence has proven conclusively that indeed, rhinos, mastodons, wooly mammoths and other “prehistoric” animals did indeed roam the crags and hillsides of southern France.)

Working from his own script, the director interviews scholars at the mouth of the cave, each of whom brings forth facts from their respective disciplines (archeology, paleontology, geology) in parsing the significance of the drawings and pointing out the oddest of facts - - that the cave’s floor, littered with the fossilized remains of countless animals, contains not a single human bone.

But as the camera provides one haunting example of creativity after another, Herzog discloses the main purpose of his film - - to argue the significance of these vivid renderings as the means by which ancient man uses artistic expression to bind the members of the human race together over the seemingly insurmountable chasm of 30 millennia. It’s impossible to see these sharply drawn sketches and not feel the tug of those who produced them - - calling to us, Herzog contends, in a way that demands we strive to imagine how our species will evolve 30,000 years hence.

Herzog provides his own answer to this question in a postscript which muddles this message, but that’s something audiences can easily overlook, given the gift which Herzog has provided in this stunning film.

The Verdict? If this one plays in a theater near you, get off your backside, buy a ticket, don the special glasses and prepared to be absolutely amazed.

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus