In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you follow Werner Herzog and his 3-D camera into one of the rarest and least accessible spots on earth — Chauvet Cave in Southern France. Here, on its bumpy walls, approximately 32,000 years ago our human forbears painted hundreds of astonishingly lifelike wild animals — horses, cattle, reindeer, rhinoceri, lions, panthers, bears, antelopes — 13 or more species. What a lot of game — and predators — there were back then! These are among the earliest paintings ever found. Many are overlaid by the rougly parallel scratch marks of cave bears, now extinct. The 3-D filming brings the region, the river valley, the rock face and the interior of the cave to vivid life, and gives a context for the paintings beyond photographs or conventional film.
Herzog was given exclusive permission to film inside the cave but in order to protect the paintings, discovered in 1994, and because of the toxic atmosphere, access was extremely limited, so Herzog and his crew had four hours a day for six days inside for filming. What they achieved is dazzling. How could it not be? The artists are great. The paintings are magnificent, and on top of that, are so distant in time, they seem filled with mystery, raising questions. If they are speaking to any one, it’s to people of their own time — not to us — and they don’t come with a commentary.
Two rhinoceri, their low slung, massive bodies seen from the side, lock horns in battle, 32,000 years ago. A bison is done largely in outline as are most of the paintings, but its face is naturalistically shadowed, giving it that man-like look people often notice in bison today — just go see them at Yellowstone. A male and a female lion are partially superposed as an eternal pair — the male is without a mane: the artist has answered the question of whether or not European male lions had manes like African lions. But in general these paintings raise more questions than they answer.
And those horses! One magnificent, large painting of a solo horse seems given a special place inside a natural niche. The edge of niche is painted with smaller animals, the way Symbolist painters around 1900 often painted the frames around their main subjects. But beware! Resemblances like this can be amusing, even intriguing, but misleading. The visual resemblance doesn’t mean the meanings or purposes are in any way similar. We don’t know what these humans were thinking when they made these paintings.
The tradition of cave painting was very long lived and remarkably constant. Some contrasts and developments can be seen in comparing the paintings of Chauvet Cave with those of, say, Lascaux Cave, 15,000 years later, but a remarkable constant that animals are by far the major subject of cave paintings, with only a very small number of human representations. One intriguing image is not fully visible from the walkway since it partly bleeds around the stalactite it’s painted on, and so was photographed with the use of a camera held up on a stick (didn’t anybody have a mirror?): it appears to show the lower part of a woman with an emphasized pubic triangle, and the upper part of a bison. One has to wonder if this (if that’s really what it is) is a hybrid of imagination or a representation of a masked figure. Arguing backward in time proves nothing but moving from the known to the unknown in thought can be useful. Humans wearing animal masks are almost ubiquitous in tribal cultures, as part of Shamanism, and in rituals. In this, and the stick-like figure of a bird-headed man from Lascaux cave, are we glimpsing a tradition that stretches from the Paleolithic to our own time?
So this film is a wonder to see, mainly because the material is a wonder, not the filming.
The choices made in writing and editing are disappointing. Access, as we know, was limited, but we see the same figures again and again. With 24 hours of filming time, they could have shown us more of the hundreds of animals and 13 or so species represented in Chauvet Cave. The related archaeology and information about the region, while interesting, should have taken up less of this 95 minute film and more given over to what’s truly unique and inaccessible, the cave.
Also, the film is more interested in “mystery” and “dreams” than in the paintings themselves. Even the title is irksome — why “forgotten dreams?” That title is just misleading mood music — there’s no reason at all to think the artists thought they were depicting dreams. Much has been suggested, and virtually nothing known for sure, about the purposes of the cave paintings, these or others, but the suggestions themselves are stimulating and should have been included in the film. Shamanism? Totemism? Hunting magic? Whatever the paintings purpose or purposes, they were very likely practical, at least in the views of those who made them.
Too much romance is thrown around in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, too many shadows cross the camera image just when you’re trying to get a good look.
More should have been said about the materials the painters used and their techniques. We’re shown remarkable right hand prints in red ochre and told these are “positive” prints but without explanation that there a many examples in cave paintings and rock paintings around the world of “negative” hand prints made by spray-painting — blowing pigment around a hand pressed to a wall as in a stencil.
But then, you’re looking at the palm prints of someone who lived 30,000 years ago, prints with poignant individuality in a detail: a distinctively bent pinkie finger. Who was there to purposefully dip the palm of a right hand in red ochre and press it to the wall? Was the bent pinkie casual or was he or she chosen to leave prints because of the odd finger? Or take it upon himself or herself … perhaps fascinated by the “different” finger. Given the context, are they a kind of painter’s signature? And of course: what would this individual of 32,000 years ago think if he or she could know we were puzzling over those palm prints today?
It’s hard to think about the missed opportunities in the making of this film. The rights should have gone to a film maker less centered on himself, and more focused on fulfilling the material. But then, this is the film we have. The paintings are so beautiful and the sights so rare, these are reasons in themselves to see it. Not seeing it is to miss a unique and important glimpse into our human past.