Film Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s documentary about the unprecedented visit granted him to explore France’s ancient Chauvet Cave and trove of rarely seen Paleolithic paintings makes for a fascinating cinematic journey enhanced by terrific 3D.

Throughout his long career, German filmmaker Werner Herzog has been counted on to deliver engaging films, whether fiction or documentary, that are especially notable for their highly original subject matter. To name but a very few in his vast oeuvre of oddities, we have Even Dwarfs Started Small, which featured a group of dwarfs confined on a small island; Fitzcarraldo, about a mad opera impresario hauling a giant boat over a hill to the jungle; and the more recent Grizzly Man, which focused on two grizzly bear activists in Alaska eventually mauled to death by these animals.

Far from strange or mad or grizzly but every bit as original and fascinating is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s expedition into France’s Chauvet Cave, never before seen by the public. Discovered in 1994 by a group of scientists, the cave, a vast space in the formidable and remote Ardeche Gorge of southern France, is home to the most ancient and inaccessible pictorial artwork known to have been created by man.

Because of its rarity, this dark and mysterious pre-historic art site does not allow access to the public. The longevity of its paintings over the millennia is largely due to the fact that a fallen rock face perhaps 20,000 years ago sealed off the cave, protecting it from light and adverse climate conditions.

In his long-sought visit, which required cooperation from the French government, Herzog, as onscreen presence, joins his crew of four and a handful of academics and scientists already given access to the cave. He provides a mesmerizing and dramatic narration to this exploration and also interviews the experts, who include archaeologist/researchers Jean-Michel Genest, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Carole Fritz and Nicholas Conard.

Declaring that this is “one of the greatest discoveries” in all of human culture and the oldest ever, Herzog is no dispassionate viewer. But his enthusiasm and awe are contagious.

The initial encounter with the cave seems ominous. The path up the cliff is forbidding and a large, locked metal entrance door protects the treasure from unsanctioned outsiders. The tight inside entryway is not for claustrophobics, nor is the required protocol of the metal door shut securely behind visitors in order to maintain the interior climate. Narrow metal catwalks, that keep the artwork at a safe distance from visitors, are the only paths around the cave. None of this makes for ideal shooting conditions, but the journey is a terrific one.

The 3D definitely enhances the immersion experience in these forbidding quarters. As for the paintings themselves, it’s their age and durability over the centuries that impress more than the aesthetics. Regarding the aesthetics, the images are surprisingly vivid and quite lovely, with special attention given to the strong lines that delineate the subjects, which include horses, bison and rhinos. The thought that this artwork was created at a time when Neanderthals still roamed the earth and cave bears, mammoths and Ice Age lions were the dominant populations of Europe is forever present. Such pervasive awareness and the 3D immediacy of it all add up to a wholly unusual cinematic experience.

As for the artists’ technique, painting with palms of the hands was apparently popular back when. Surprisingly, neither Herzog nor his experts provide much information about what mediums these Paleolithic amateurs used to get their time-defying pictures on these curved stone wall canvases.

The doc helpfully provides animation of the laser scans done in the cave to further convey the scope of this incredible artistic find. And Ernst Reijseger’s subtle score heightens the awe and wonder as it assures that no vibration will violate the stillness or continuity of this precious gallery.