“Most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a fascinating journey back in time. In this case, we are not talking about fifty or one hundred years, but 32,000 years in the past to discover a unique collection of cave art situated in the Chauvet-Pont-d Arc Cave in the Ardéche region of Southern France. Discovered in 1994, the paintings are considered to be one of the most important prehistoric examples of cave art. Called the Chauvet cave after one of the first cave explorers, Jean-Marie-Chauvet, the site contains more than 400 excellent quality painted or engraved animals from the Paleolithic period, including depictions of mammoths, lions, rhinoceroses, bison, horses, bears and other animals, many of which are now extinct. Though Herzog claims the region was in the throes of an ice age and was very cold, game animals like lions and rhinos seem to have been incongruously present.
In addition to the wall paintings deep inside the cave, there are also tracks in the floor including one of a small child, paw prints, fossilized remains including skulls of cave bears, and an ibex (a wild goat), and even wooden flutes in which one of the scientists played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Using red ochre and charcoal emulsion, the Paleolithic artists created hand prints, hand stencils, abstract markings, figures shaped with dots, and many unidentified images. Sealed by a rock slide 20,000 years ago, the site has been immaculately preserved. Since a large influx of tourists might raise the humidity inside the caves leading to the growth of mold on the walls potentially destroying the art, the cave has been seized and sealed by the French government and barred to the public by an iron door. The government has announced, however, that an exact replica will be built near the site for public viewing.
Filmed in 3D, Cave of Forgotten Dreams offers the melodious narration of Werner Herzog providing a sense of mystery as only Herzog can do, the other-worldly music of cellist Ernst Reijseger (a Herzog regular) and interviews with archaeologists, paleontologists, and other scientists and historians. Though the 3D technique magnifies and enhances the paintings for close-up viewing beautifully, the technique is not as successful in depicting outdoor scenery, albino crocodiles in a biosphere near a nuclear plant, or interviews with scientists. In typical romantic fashion, Herzog calls the Chauvet cave the place “where the modern human soul was awakened.” Though it is repeatedly said in the film and elsewhere that the Chauvet caves are the oldest examples of prehistoric art in the world, what is left unsaid is that there may have been hundreds if not thousands of other examples of Paleolithic art that have been lost and may indeed have been much older.
In fact, in 2000, Science magazine reported that cave paintings found in northern Italy at Fumane that fell from the cave roof were embedded in floor sediments dated to between 32,000 and 36,000 years ago. Even then, it is impossible to know how long the paintings remained intact on the ceiling before they fell to the floor. Indeed, we can even go back 77,000 years to find the earliest piece of abstract art in the world — a small ochre slab engraved with a cross-hatched grid in the Blombos cave in South Africa. Herzog seems to give the impression that the cave paintings at Chauvet are unique, even though similar cave paintings from the same period have been discovered in Germany at Vogelhared, Hohlenstien-Stadel, Geissenklosterle, and Hohle-fels as well as in Spain, Australia, and as far away as Southern Africa.
Herzog says that the greatest mystery is who these people are and asks, “What do they think?, Do they cry at night?” The bigger mystery, however, is ignored. This is the widespread depictions of half-man, half beast creatures, known as therianthropes, visible in caves all over the world. Granted that the film is not about cave art in general, but about the paintings in a particular location, it should be pointed out that a bison-man hanging suspended from the ceiling at Chauvet matches closely the outline of a bison-man in the cave of El Castillo in northern Spain thought to be dated 15,000 years ago, an incredible span of 17,000 years separating the two. No explanation of these figures and their precise relationship with the naturalistic images of animals has ever been accepted, and remains one of the major unsolved mysteries of cave art.
Anthropologist David-Lewis Williams has suggested, however, that cave art may be an indication of shamanistic practices — paintings by functionaries in the society with an ability to enter the spirit world and control altered states of consciousness. Whatever their origin and purpose (something we may never know), the art of Chauvet is a wonder, not because it is the oldest, but because of the stunning use of expressive techniques as in the utilization of curved rock formations creating the impression of movement, and the use of perspective and shadows in painting a group of horses and the clashing of two rhinos. Cave of Forgotten Dreams not only captures the immense power of art that dates to the dawn of man’s history, but infuses it with a profound spiritual presence. It is a remarkable achievement and Herzog’s best film in years.