Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog immortalises the paleolithic Chauvet Cave paintings in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a documentary that showcases and explores the oldest cave paintings ever discovered, located in Southern France. The paintings in the cave have been dated back to as early as 32,000 BCE, making them very extraordinary indeed. They contain figures of animals – lions, rhinoceros, bison, cave bears and more. But the art is so extraordinarily produced, and has been preserved so well that it looks as if it may have been painted yesterday. Herzog tells the story of these paintings with a reflective and exploratory tone, and with his classically strange humour and questioning of interview subjects.
The story of the Chauvet Cave paintings is told through Herzog’s typical documentary style – exploring the origins of the story, meeting with experts, and with his own musings upon the cave and its meaning for both the ancient, long-deceased painters of the art, and for modern viewers of the art. I love Herzog’s style of interviewing as his questions tend to transcend the mundane and become mystical; for example, where he begins interviewing an archaeologist about his dreams of the paintings and what that may signify for his professional involvement with it. You don’t see that type of interviewing anywhere else. To watch a Herzog documentary is to go deeper into the subject matter than you would have ever anticipated.
What I loved the most about Cave of Forgotten Dreams was its steady, reflective and methodical viewing of the cave paintings set to beautiful music by Ernst Reijseger. Considering that the caves are shut away from tourists (for good reason, as similar caves have been irreparably damaged as a direct result of tourism), and that we will never be able to see them in person, I loved the fact that Herzog gave us this one-on-one time with the paintings – showing them moving amongst the dimension of the cave walls, with flickering lights as if lit by a campfire, and with shadows as if someone is dancing around a fire in front of them. Of course, any time Werner Herzog opens his mouth is a highlight in all of his documentaries, but this viewing of the art in particular felt special. The music and sound design during these segments was so affecting and emotive. It felt like walking through one of the most emotional art galleries of all time.
Given Werner Herzog’s status as one of the world’s greatest documentary filmmakers, he was the perfect choice to represent this strange and beautiful cave art in film form, to be in charge of immortalising this art for future generations who will not have the opportunity to see it in person. You can trust that the paintings are given the perfect amount of gravitas and respect, in addition to the quirks and eccenticities of a director who seems to operate on an entirely different plane of consciousness than the other people in the film. For example, towards the end of the film, where Herzog poses the question to his audience – “Are we today the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time when we see the paintings of Chauvet cave?”. It sounds ridiculous, but he makes you truly wonder about these things. I’m not quite sure how to answer that question, but I do know that watching this documentary was an illuminating and inspiring experience.
Watch the trailer here.
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