Cave of Forgotten Dreams marks perhaps the single most important film of legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s oeuvre, historically-speaking. This exclusive filmed record of the cave paintings in Chauvet Cave, France, not only captures some of the most inaccessible cave art in the world on film for film-going audiences to see, but does so in a manner at once hypnotic, thought-provoking, and awe-inspiring until its final, poignant moments. Screened theatrically in 3D (honestly the most clever use of 3D I’ve ever heard of), the film is presented in both 3D and 2D on one Blu-ray disc. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to experience this release in 3D, the HD transfer of the 2D presentation is strikingly beautiful, even if the footage shot from a remote control helicopter in the opening of the film is somewhat dizzying.
The paintings in Chauvet Cave represent the oldest-known paintings of any kind in the world. Dating back 30,000 years, these cave paintings are in fact twice as old as any others yet discovered, painted at a time when Homo sapiens and Neanderthal co-existed. A fortuitous cave-in at the mouth of Chauvet Cave left these paintings perfectly preserved until the cave was first explored in 1994 by three speleologists (one for whom the cave was named), who gleaned this incredible site’s historical significance immediately.
Herzog, allowed exclusive access to the cave, crafts a documentary that is, at first, decidedly melancholic in tone. Inspired by the incredible images he finds in the cave, Herzog laments the limitations of the archeological studies being done on the cave, for even with the scientists’ extensive findings we will never truly understand the human element behind these works. We will never know the lives of those Homo sapiens who painted by torchlight on Chauvet’s walls 30,000 years ago. Ernst Reijseger, the composer on Herzog’s previous films Rescue Dawn and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, provides a haunting score that mirrors Herzog’s own lamentations. However, Reijseger’s decidedly ominous compositions characterizing the early portions of the film give way to a more triumphant tribal score during an extended sequence in which the paintings are presented sans narration. These scenes reflect Herzog’s respectful presentation of the paintings throughout, as he lets the paintings speak for themselves, with the exception of his own voiced quandaries regarding the history of these works as well as his candid explanations of the process by which he made the film itself. And these paintings indeed have much to say, especially with regard to their artists as artists. The artistic proficiency of these early men constitutes perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of this discovery. Indeed, calculated line work, utilization of shading, contrast, perspective, motion, and even abstraction characterize the paintings found in Chauvet. Seeing such artistic competency from prehistoric man, I for one share in Herzog’s sadness in knowing that we’ll likely learn little more than what is presented here about the people responsible for the breath-taking panoramas in Chauvet.
The special features on the MPI release, though limited, include a trailer and a phenomenal look at the recording of Forgotten Dreams’ score in “Ode to the Dawn of Man.” This 40-minute documentary, shot by Herzog himself, provides an interesting context in which to view the film regarding the spirituality of man 30,000 years ago and how it speaks to the spirituality of man today as represented by the church in which the score was recorded. Moreover, in witnessing Reijseger’s cello-playing, we realize the extent to which this documentary is pervaded by the emotionality of modern men such as Reijseger and Herzog, who are stirred by their connection as artists to those ice age artists of Chauvet.