Gilles Tosello in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Herzog. Photo by Marc Valesella.
Even the caves at Lascaux had some guy saying, That buffalo is too literal.
—Michael Seidenberg, Brazen Head Books
Werner Herzog wants us to be aliens. The filmmaker is a man from outer space. His wide-eyed wonder sometimes tries my patience, in the same way that showing around an out-of-towner can begin as an opportunity to have a chance encounter with my own city but quickly becomes obnoxious. One can’t go around marveling at every skyscraper. But is it an adaptive skill to take these marvels of engineering for granted, or have our aesthetic senses become too dull to marvel?
Accepting Herzog’s films on their own terms means becoming available to encounter. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s newest documentary, dramatizes an encounter with a lost world. The Chauvet Cave, which the documentary focuses on, was discovered in 1994 in southern France and for over a decade has remained inaccessible to anyone other than the few scientists authorized to explore it.
Explore may be too strong a word. To collect samples, scientists must mince across a thin wooden walkway which snakes through the cave, detouring sharply to avoid the crystallized bodies of ancient golden eagles. The cave was occupied alternately by humans and giant bears, though never at the same time. In the innermost part of the cave, one fanged skull seems to have been intentionally placed on top of a stone guarding the area most populated by paintings—a dragon perched on top of a gem-studded horde. As Herzog intends, we see the hungry claw-marks on the hide of a painted horse and are afraid. Even though the bears are long dead they still seem to pose a threat. Our fear is near to pleasure, because the presence of a dragon indicates how valuable the horde really is.
Unlike the caves at Lascaux, which are so famous the French government is building an exact replica for tourists to visit (the originals are becoming damaged by human heat and sweat), the Chauvet Cave remains pristine. It is also much older, the artwork predating that of Lascaux by 13,000 years at least. Herzog and his team were only allowed to shoot for a few minutes every day, partially due to toxic gasses in the cave, and were admonished to stay on the wooden track. These restrictions make this film feel like a fairy tale, an imaginative game of hot-lava in which the filmmaker must discover the cave’s secrets while never letting his feet touch the ground.
The most striking secret lies deep in the cave, but before it gets there, Herzog’s film detours to comment on the nature and function of art. Herzog is silver-tongued (it’s no wonder he was the only filmmaker to get access to the Chauvet Cave) and his commentary accretes over time like the jutting stalagmite crystals that cover the cave with a layer of shimmering rock. The many-legged buffalo are not a mistake, he explains, but the artist’s attempt to render movement. Herzog dwells lovingly on the cave paintings, which look remarkably fresh and expressive. The addition of 3-D feels less gimmicky than it usually does, coming close to solving the problem of depicting flat images on film. We can see how the artist, intimate with the canvas which was also the walls and roof of his home, worked withrather than against the rock to make a herd of wild horses seem to surge upward like a wave. Deep in the cave, where the trail stops, a room of bone and crystal like a primordial sea stands between Herzog and the ultimate cave painting—a woman’s torso, from the labia down.
The painting is partially obscured by the tortured angle of a camera that had to be mounted on a raised stick in order to capture the image. The discovery of the painting of the woman raises new questions about the human/animal connection, which resonate back through the rest of the film, as Herzog revisits footage of emotive animals which now seem almost human.
Through the rapt commentary of a visitor to a strange planet, Herzog accomplishes the improbable—he makes the forgotten seem like the very edge of the new, and evokes a sense of wonder surely shared by the cave artists themselves when they first figured out how to make a still image come to life.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is in theaters now.