Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary that, when viewed in 2-D, offers respite from smoking-gun docs trying to make the genre seem less like a middle-school science VHS. In it, Herzog and a small crew follow a team of experts who have access to the Chauvet cave in southern France where the oldest known human-made images are hiding. The cave was sealed off immediately after it was found in 1994 so the precious drawings would be protected from degradation, and only those with special clearance are allowed inside.
The importance of such old caves is their insight into how humans began to discover their place in the universe: where they were in relation to God, nature, animals, and each other, and how images played a role in that discovery. Our society deals with similar issues, but unlike the Upper Paleolithic peoples who left drawings of lions, birds, and bears in the caves for later generations to find, ours left a two-foot wide walkway made of steel and a few dangling lamps. Herzog’s crew navigates this walkway while holding rectangular lights and a few handheld cameras in an attempt to capture the caves and share their treasures with those of us who can’t get in.
Archeologists, art historians, and even a master perfumer make appearances in the film to discuss the artifacts that have been preserved there for over 35,000 years. Skulls of the extinct cave bear lay virtually everywhere, surprisingly accurate charcoal renderings of cave lions prove that their species didn’t have manes, elongated horns give a glimpse at the evolutionary differences between the wooly rhinoceros and its contemporaries, one specific drawing of a woman’s lower half offers an exciting connection to the Venus of Willendorf fertility figurines found around Europe and elsewhere.
The cinematography used in the film reflects how cave artists viewed the images on the interior walls. Flickering light and varying aperture settings combine with successively rendered imagery on uneven contours to give the illusion of motion. A stampede of lions’ heads and necks resemble something someone today would illustrate.
Anthropomorphic representations take on the meaning of universality. As one archeologist explains, humanity’s idea of permeability used to be much different than ours is today. He hypothesizes that they saw themselves as just one part of the world rather than master of it, and believed that interaction with cave walls was akin to communicating with animals; that they had the power to spiritually transcend the corporeal self via representation. Shadows, which were among the first figurations, also could have had such a purpose. These hypotheses in addition to the fact that one particular cave bear skull was placed with precision on the edge of a rock, like an altar, offer spiritual answers to the cave’s function. Another purpose of the cave may have been an art gallery in which the artists knew their works would be preserved forever. The hypothesis is supported by red hand stamps, which appear in many areas, acting as one artist’s signature identifying his or her works.
Artists of the twentieth century were floored by cave paintings when they were first discovered because they contained abstractions that predated deconstructive ideas like cubism and expressionism by thousands of years. Equally as enchanting, the Chauvet cave wasn’t forgotten, just sealed off after the earth shifted, left alone for a long time, kept secret so they could survive and provide some clues for us. The real forgotten dream may be the idea that previous peoples were dumber than we are. Proof against stagnation in the progression of humanity is what researchers seem to be desperately looking for when they visit the caves, or an affirmation that the last 35,000 years haven’t been wasted by a battle against technology. Yet, like every expert before him, Herzog didn’t find it. The clue to our superiority wasn’t in these caves. Until someone stumbles down into an abyss with perfectly preserved relics that seem even more completely arbitrary and pointless than our own, all we have to work with are several intricate drawings of complex ideas that identify commonalities between us and the earliest societies.