I must begin with this statement: I love Werner Herzog!! If I had to choose a favorite filmmaker in the world it would be he. Beginning with Aguirre: The Wrath of God, his unique way of depicting the world has enthralled me. Most of his films would not be considered mainstream by any stretch, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not like anything else out there, but I think it should appeal to a wider audience because it is a portrait of a truly fascinating place, a unique opportunity to step into a cave beautifully decorated more than 30,000 years ago and off limits to most of humankind. In this excellent documentary the audience is allowed a private viewing of the world’s oldest known paintings.
The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern Freance was only discovered in 1994, as these things happen, by chance. It had been sealed by a rockslide tens of thousands of years ago and walking inside is a glimpse into life when men and wooly mammoths shared the world. As most 3D movies these days seem to be using the technology as a gimmick, here it is integral to your experience of this cavern with its stalactites and stalagmites, its jutting walls and various textures. And the paintings themselves are just plain marvelous! That people who were hunting mammoths with spears and competing with Neanderthals for primacy in the world had time and the inclination to draw such beautiful animals on the walls of a cave is astounding. And these drawings are not rudimentary scribbles but the work of true artists. The horses are amazingly elegant and the lions, scary.
Herzog and his film crew were only allowed into the cave for a very short time and were limited to standing on a protective walkway, but despite or perhaps because of the restrictions, they are able to give you the feeling of attending a very exclusive show in an ancient art gallery. Archeologists and various other experts weigh in on the caves and some of their secrets. We learn that a six foot tall man’s hand prints adorn both the entrance and a wall at the back of the caves and we know they are the same hand because he has a misshapen pinkie. Their descriptions of the world these primeval artists inhabited is at times surprising and totally enthralling.
At the end of the movie, I had a head full of questions. Who were these proto-Picassos? Why did they paint? Where else are there undiscovered galleries of ancient forgotten art? And why are there no depictions of other humans? Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a rare film experience that I cannot imagine anyone not being moved by. I’d recommend it to all who would like to step back in time to the beginning of human art and just maybe get a glimpse of our creative inception. Damn, I wish there were time machines!