Herzog Finds His Inner Cave Man
What a gift Werner Herzog offers with “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” an inside look at the astonishing Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc — and in 3-D too. In southern France, about 400 miles from Paris, the limestone cave contains a wealth of early paintings, perhaps from as long ago as 32,000 years. Here, amid gleaming stalactites and stalagmites and a carpet of animal bones, beautiful images of horses gallop on walls alongside bison and a ghostly menagerie of cave lions, cave bears and woolly mammoths. Multiple red palm prints of an early artist adorn one wall, as if to announce the birth of the first auteur.
Surely there were other, previous artists — those who first picked up a bit of charcoal, say, and scraped it on a stone — but the Chauvet paintings are among the earliest known. The cave was discovered in December 1994 by three French cavers, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. Following an air current coming from the cliff, they dug and crawled their way into the cave, which had been sealed tight for some 20,000 years. After finally making their way to an enormous chamber, Ms. Deschamps held up her lamp and, seeing an image of a mammoth, cried out, “They were here,” a glorious moment of discovery that closed the distance between our lost human past and our present.
The French government soon took custody of the cave, and ordinary visitors were barred to protect it, as Mr. Herzog explains in his distinctive voice-over, from the kind of damage done to other prehistoric caverns. Being not remotely ordinary, he persuaded the government to allow him and a tiny crew to join the researchers who visit the cave to plumb its secrets. A late-act revelation in the movie that a Chauvet attraction is in the works suggests that tourist dollars might explain why he was allowed in. The cave is already a regional attraction (there is an exhibition nearby), and certainly the movie is a fabulous bit of advertising that may even help France’s bid to have Chauvet designated a Unesco World Heritage site.
Whatever the reason, it’s a blast to be inside the cave, to see these images, within 3-D grabbing reach. As the smooth-handed director of photography Peter Zeitlinger wields the camera, Mr. Herzog walks and even crawls for your viewing pleasure. He’s an agreeable, sometimes characteristically funny guide, whether showing you the paintings or talking with the men and women who study them. As evident from his other documentaries, like “Encounters at the End of the World,” set in Antarctica, he also has a talent for tapping into the poetry of the human soul, finding people who range freely in this world and others, like the circus performer turned anthropologist here who night after night dreamed of lions after visiting the cave.
Much like this anthropologist and Ms. Deschamps, the explorer who cried out, “They were here” on seeing a painted mammoth, many of the researchers in the documentary seem deeply moved by the cave. In some ways they are communing with the dead, summoning up the eternally lost. For his part, Mr. Herzog uses the paintings to riff on the origin of art, at one point connecting overlapping images of horses — some of which, with their open mouths, convey a sense of movement — to cinema itself. At times he drifts away from the cave, tagging along, for instance, with a perfumer who tries to sniff out caves and isn’t half as interesting as those anthropologists who dream of, and happily live with, these uncommon ghosts.
In archaeology circles there has been debate on whether the earliest Chauvet paintings date from 32,000 to 30,000 BP (or “before present,” in the charming parlance of archaeology) or are actually somewhat younger. Whatever the case, even one of the critics of the earlier dating, a German archaeologist, Christian Züchner, has agreed on their beauty, enthusing in one 2001 paper that, “Even if Chauvet Cave is not as old as assumed it remains one of the outstanding highlights of cave art!” Mr. Herzog doesn’t address the conflict, which partly turns on whether the radiocarbon dating was sufficient, but then again, he isn’t a journalist. As the wistful title of the documentary indicates, he moves in a realm beyond empiricism, in a world of dreams and stories.
It takes a big subject to upstage Mr. Herzog, an often brilliant filmmaker of fiction and nonfiction who has mellowed into a borderline self-parodying figure, disarming (and famous) enough for a guest turn on “The Simpsons.” The cave largely keeps his more indulgently shticky side in check, save for a needlessly obfuscating coda set in a freaky research center where albino crocodiles swim in the runoff from nuclear reactor plants. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is certainly an imperfect reverie. The 3-D is sometimes less than transporting, and the chanting voices in the composer Ernst Reijseger’s new-agey score tended to remind me of my last spa massage. Yet what a small price to pay for such time traveling!
CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS Written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog; director of photography, Peter Zeitlinger; edited by Joe Bini and Maya Hawke; music by Ernst Reijseger; produced by Erik Nelson and Adrienne Ciuffo; released by Sundance Selects. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is rated G.