Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Directed by Werner Herzog
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about one of history’s greatest wonders: German director Werner Herzog. In more precise terms, the film is about the world’s most ancient works of art, etched into the walls of a cave in southern France. But Herzog is a filmmaker possessed of such ecstatic fascination, poetic thoughtfulness and an endlessly intriguing, totally bonkers worldview that everything he makes is at least a little bit informed by the fact that he is the one who made it. All his nonfiction projects should really be given titles like Werner Looks at Glaciers or Werner Ponders Getting Eaten by a Grizzly Bear. It’s not that he consciously interjects himself into his movies, à la Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock; his personality is such that it simply can’t be helped. And that’s not even mentioning his distinctive accent, a warm Teutonic brogue that renders his narration at once deeply poignant and unintentionally silly. As a colleague of mine once wrote, “I could listen to Werner Herzog read Google search results for ‘grass + growing’ and be sufficiently entertained.”
The documentary Werner Offers Lawn Care Advice is still forthcoming. With Cave, however, Herzog finds a subject truly worthy of his profundity. In 1994, three scientists exploring the archaeologically rich Ardèche region of France came across a limestone cave, sealed off by a rockslide several millennia prior. Entering through a narrow corridor, they found, along with the astonishingly well-preserved fossils of long-extinct mammals, a stunning gallery of charcoal paintings, mostly depicting animals once native to the area: horses, rhinos, bears, panthers, etc. Carbon dating placed them at around 32,000 years old, the oldest ever discovered. The French government immediately sealed off the cave with a steel door and barred the public from entering.
It took special authorization from the minister of culture for Herzog to gain access to the Chauvet Cave, as it is now known. Even then, he was forced to film under significant constraints, limiting the size of his crew and the kind of equipment he could use, as well as the length of time he was allowed to stay inside the cave each day. He could not touch anything, nor could he leave the two-foot-wide aluminum walkway winding around the cave floor. Watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it hardly seems that Herzog was hindered by the restrictions. If anything, the film benefits from them: The low-powered lights illuminate the drawings as torches would, certainly the way they’re intended to be viewed. Honoring the supposed intent of the artist is Herzog’s primary goal: He shot the film in 3-D, a form he abhors, because the paintings actually utilize the bulges and contours of the rocks. It is, from a cinematography standpoint, a remarkably tactile experience.
Of course, it is impossible to know for sure what this Paleolithic Cézanne — and evidence suggests the paintings are indeed the work of a single artist, who left handprints as a form of signature — was hoping to convey. It is the burden of modern man to guess. And that is what marks the mysteries of Chauvet Cave as a natural for Herzog. His filmography is threaded by a fixation with human obsession, and who is more obsessive than the archaeologist, whose life’s purpose is to explain the unfathomable past? Herzog’s slow pan across a room of experts enthusiastically comparing notes on the cave mirrors his camera’s wide-eyed crawls across the paintings themselves. He is as awed with the art as he is with the admirably futile attempts to understand those who created it. “It’s like you’re creating the phone directory of Manhattan,” Herzog says to a scientist mapping, in mind-blowing detail, the interior of the 1,300-square-foot cave. “Four million precise entries, but do they dream? Do they cry at night?”
And then, Herzog tacks on a postscript with some crazy bullshit about albino alligators. Because what would a Werner Herzog film be without some crazy bullshit?
Ventura Film Society presents Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Tuesday, May 15, 7 p.m. at 420 E. Santa Clara St. at the corner of Oak Street in Downtown Ventura. For more information, visit www.venturafilmsociety.com.