A landslide hermetically sealed what would become known as the Chauvet Cave some 20,000 years ago, preserving its contents in a sort of natural time capsule. Among these contents are paintings which carbon dating tells us are roughly 32,000 years old—by far the oldest works of art in the world. The cave was discovered in 1994 when explorers found air shafts along its nearby cliffs. Because of the delicate atmospheric conditions needed to maintain the integrity of its contents, access to Chauvet has been restricted to a handful of scientists, with very few exceptions. It is our great fortune that one of those exceptions was made for Werner Herzog and his skeleton crew.
It is difficult to put into words why so much in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is so immensely moving. Obviously, that we’re seeing manmade images of such unfathomable vintage is itself deeply impressive, but the sophistication of the paintings goes far beyond crude representation: they elegantly envelop the undulations of the cave’s walls; they convey decidedly personal impressions of the beasts they depict, and sometimes imply movement through repetition; one image of a cave lion is drawn with a single, six-foot-long brush stroke. The genuine artfulness of these paintings prompted Herzog to make his film not merely a document of some extraordinary discovery, but to use it as a platform for speculating on the dreams of its Stone Age authors, whom he imagines as envisioning “the landscape as operatic event,” and whom he aligns with both the German Romanticists and cinema’s forefathers.
One of the most remarkable works Herzog encounters is a palimpsest, with one layer being painted some 5,000 years after the first. In a sense, Herzog’s film is another layer to this collaboration that stretches across millennia, evoking a poetry and sensuality unique to its form, and making the most relevant use of 3D technology I’ve ever seen. Organ and cello music heighten our sense of having entered an ancient cathedral. Spotlights from the crew’s headlamps move like fireflies across stone and stalagmites and the places where calcites have rendered the cave floor into a rink of glistening wax. In the most spellbinding passages, Herzog’s informative, characteristically eccentric running voice-over falls silent, leaving only Ernst Reijseger's haunting score on the soundtrack, and his light panels move across the paintings like a caress, echoing the torches held by those who came before. The result is a feeling of intense intimacy.
There’s more, of course, to Cave of Forgotten Dreams than just the cave itself. As with Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog is also very interested in the people who have gathered from many places and disciplines to work in and around Chauvet. Most memorably, he speaks with a scientist and former circus juggler who confesses that during his initial visits to Chauvet he had alarmingly vivid dreams of lions every night and needed time away from the cave to recover. It’s one of those things you might imagine the mischievous Herzog scripting for his subject, but the truth is that, after seeing this film, it’s actually hard to imagine spending time in Chauvet and not being haunted by primordial visions, by things lodged deep in the psyche, rarely awakened, and beyond language. Do see this movie.