Leave it to the incomparable Werner Herzog to take the experience of filming chicken-scratch paintings on the walls of a long-sealed cave in the mountains of southern France and turn it into a rumination on the aspirations of humanity and an examination of art’s purpose throughout the history of our species. Herzog, the eccentric and contemplative director of such sterling and penetrating documentaries as Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, brings a natural, burning insight to each subject he’s documented across the course of his long, fruitful career, but I don’t know that I’ve seen him react to his chosen material from such an interpretive and analytical angle before. Maybe confronting the earliest cave paintings known to mankind explains his musings; after all, when faced with the first significant artistic expressions of our race, wouldn’t you deign fit to wax poetic on their deeper meanings?
The paintings in question reside within the confines of the Chauvet Cave, situated nearby the Pont d’Arc; the cave was discovered in 1994 by a group of speleologists (including Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom the cave was named), and has been protected by the French government and only accessed by scholars and scientists since, with the general public being denied access. And why not– the images within the cave mark a find of great importance in the story of homosapiens‘ time on Earth. Herzog, being the roguish fellow he is, secured permission from the French minister of culture to film the cave and its paintings, and in doing so has presented to us regulars the opportunity to gaze upon the works of early man ourselves.
For all of the hurdles Herzog had to clear– he could only bring a crew of three in with him (apart from an escort of scientists, that is), and the group only had the option of using battery-powered equipment, among other idiosyncrasies– is the end result of his labor worth it? Indisputably, yes. Herzog could have simply made an hour-long film touring through the cave’s various sections, capturing every image within his power given the restrictions understandably imposed upon him, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams would still be one of the most captivating and beautiful films of the year. That Herzog layers his footage of Chauvet with interviews with archaeologists and numerous other experts involved with the study of the cave, while sharing his own meditations with us, only serves to make his film even more potent.
The paintings themselves are breath-taking and striking in their simplistic glory, maybe all the more so because at a glance they amount to the prehistoric cave scratchings of neanderthals. There’s a quiet refinement to what we’re shown, though; while we might not expect the most advanced artistic techniques given the source, the representations of animals that decorate the walls of Chauvet nonetheless look perfectly drawn in their own right. “Flawlessly” would actually be more accurate; there’s a sense that whoever painted these images did so with an absence of error, and in one sitting to boot. What catches Herzog’s attention, though, are drawings in which the beast being portrayed has more limbs than expected; he surmises that in the flickering light of a fire, the character might appear to be running, and so the German documentarian concludes that Chauvet contains not just the earliest paintings known to man, but the earliest cinema as well.
Herzog’s greatest interest, though, lies in speculating on what impelled the cave people of the region to paint in the first place. Primarily, he postulates– as you might infer from the film’s title– that they meant to record their hopes and dreams through the use of artistic expression; he’s speaking somewhat nebulously as he contemplates the over-arching significance of the Chauvet Cave, but I don’t know that he means to draw any ironclad conclusions over what these paintings mean. To be honest, the fact that he’s accorded his audiences an up-close (albeit second-hand) view of them is enough, but he cogitates on their significance regardless. Ultimately, the question of Cave of Forgotten Dreams becomes one regarding the nature of art and why we choose to create.
The answer to that particular quandary could take up several dozen articles all on its own. Herzog neither leaves things totally open-ended nor satisfactorily resolves his own inquiry. Apart from the absolutely gorgeous images Herzog took such pains to capture, though, I think the important takeaway of his film is that across time, people have responded to the call to create. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about art and the roles that art fulfills in every culture, including (and especially) those that hail from the dawn of humanity. If we can’t yet answer what our artistic forebears intended through their visual expression, then we can take solace in the connection between our two disparate worlds and the kinship found in our shared pursuit of the arts. Few filmmakers today truly grasp the art of the documentary so thoroughly as Herzog, and here, he shows once more his mastery of his craft.