A documentary about the oldest artwork in the world may make the newest film technology viable for independent cinema.
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams brings to life the Paleolithic treasures discovered in 1994 in Chauvet cave in southern France. Sealed off by a rockslide in the distant past, the cave has perfectly preserved a trove of bones, prints, and magnificent renderings of horses, bears, lions, rhinoceroses, and other animals painted and etched into the cave walls more than 30,000 years ago.
IFC Films is distributing Cave, which premiered last September at the Toronto Film Festival, in both standard and 3-D versions in US theaters, as well as VOD, starting April 29. Cave of Forgotten Dreams not only records the exquisite Chauvet paintings with the additional depth enabled by stereoscopy, but also proves how well 3-D—a format generally associated with spectacles or novelty films—suits the intimacy of documentary, and by implication, smaller dramatic films.
You can’t get more intimate than Chauvet cave (named for one of its discoverers, Jean-Marie Chauvet), where precious few visitors are even allowed inside each year, and Herzog had to limit his crew to three, use battery-powered cameras and low-heat lights, and film from a narrow catwalk that snakes through the cave to keep anyone from damaging the floor. The crew could only shoot part of the time with their professional rig; otherwise they had to make do with a smaller camera.
Despite and because of such restrictions, Cave ranges widely. Scenes inside the cave that detail artifacts and show scientists at work alternate with footage shot in the surrounding landscape or in laboratories that features interviews with experts who discuss the significance of the finds and give mini-primers on various facets of Paleolithic culture.
The last third of the film, showcasing footage shot with the primary camera, reveals the paintings in exhaustive, languorous pans that recall the truck-mounted tracking shots of the Sahara in Herzog’s Fata Morgana (1971) or the helicopter views of the Kuwaiti oil fields in Lessons of Darkness (1992). At intervals throughout the film, interviewees and Herzog, who again contributes his own voiceover, fall silent; the filmmaker lets the artwork tell its story, accompanied only by Ernst Reijseger’s evocative score.
One of the most striking features of the cave that emerges in the film is that no sharp line distinguishes art from nature. Animal figures painted by humans, who used the uneven surface of the cave walls to render their images in partial relief, appear alongside or even on top of claw marks left by creatures whose bones and paw prints litter the cave floor, where limestone deposited over the course of millennia has caused skeletal remains to resemble stylized sculptures. The paintings both depict nature and use its contours to make the art come alive, an effect heightened by the changes in the cave since the artwork was created.
At times Herzog laments the impossibility of bridging the chasm of time and experience separating the cave artists from researchers who are studying Chauvet in the 21st century; at others he makes leaps of connection and identification. The paintings, he muses, are “proto-cinema,” and their nameless makers the vanguard of artistic expression. As the camera swoops down the Ardèche river towards the Pont d’Arc, the majestic natural bridge near the limestone bluff where the cave is located, the sublime scenery reminds the filmmaker of Romantic poetry and art, and he wonders whether the cave painters were moved by the same natural features that inspire artists in our own era.
Cave thus makes thematic its alternation between interior and exterior, between wondrous contemplation and rational study of the cave, and so follows a typically Romantic cycle of engagement and reflection (“Emotion recollected in tranquility,” as William Wordsworth put it).
And while Herzog’s occasionally bombastic narration serves as a counterpoint to the scientific discourse of the men and women who study technique, motifs, and the timeline of human activity in Chauvet, the philosophical issues he raises concern the archaeologists as well. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is about imagination, the imagination of the artist and also, the scientist.
Indeed, several of Herzog’s informants come off as quirky obsessives, not unlike the filmmaker himself. He speaks with a reindeer-hide-wearing man who plays the “Star-Spangled Banner” on a replica Paleolithic flute, a perfumer who wanders over cave country sniffing for the telltale scent of caverns, and a circus performer turned anthropologist trying to comprehend prehistoric peoples’ conceptions of art. The director’s infectious compulsiveness even colors our impression of the anonymous Cro-Magnon who made his handprint in paint over and over again throughout Chauvet cave.
As intriguing as these stories may be, Cave is filled, like all of Herzog’s films, with scenes of startling beauty, and scenes of seeming banality that approach the grotesque. 3-D enhances them all. At the end of the film, the camera, mounted on a remote-controlled drone, swoops down into a crewmember’s outstretched hands; it’s as if he’s reached out and embraced us. If we haven’t already made the connection, this arresting shot stresses the equivalence between the human face and the 3-D camera, with twin lenses set the same distance apart as a pair of eyes.
In the past, 3-D has frequently relied on the illusion that objects seem to project beyond the screen into the viewers’ space. Cave of Forgotten Dreams reveals the complementary, perhaps more powerful effect of drawing the viewer in, not as a startled spectator, but as a confidant or accomplice.