Mark Reviews Movies

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Werner Herzog

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 4/29/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 28, 2011

Werner Herzog is a talkative fellow. His narration for his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams waxes philosophical on the nature of humanity at times to the point of rambling, like when he compares the human experience to a group of albino crocodiles that have been mutated by generations of living in the water used to cool down a nuclear reactor (a leap in logic that vaults right over the cliff of absurdity). The discussion of the spiritual life of our primitive ancestors touches upon a similar bit of oddity, but then again, there is the skull of a cave bear sitting on what appears to be an altar—either a warning to the cave's natural inhabitants or an actual location of worship.

More to the point, though, is what Herzog's film shows us on the walls of that cave. Here, in Chauvet Cave in the southern part France, are the earliest known depictions of human art. Unseen for tens of thousands of years by anyone or anything, the cave does speak to us about that unknowable spark in the human mind to create—to make one's mark, consciously or (more than likely in the case of our prehistoric forbearers) subconsciously, on the ramparts of history.

Discovered in 1994, Chauvet Cave has been off-limits to everyone but few in the scientific fields in which the cave's study would prove necessary to uncover its mysteries—sealed by a locked, metal door and protected by round-the-clock guards. Herzog, granted special permission by the French government, has unprecedented and almost complete access to the cave and its paintings, and he and his minimal crew (a cinematographer, a sound man, and an assistant, with Herzog himself hauling the specially mandated, low-heat lights), accompanied by a few experts, are clearly in awe of what they see as they carefully step and crawl across a narrow, metallic walkway installed for the rare visitor inside this almost hallowed space. The group's talking inside is minimal, and even upon their first trip, their guide makes a suggestion to be as quiet as possible and listen to the silence.

It's when Herzog takes this advice to heart in the film that it really says more than any thoughtful or random bits of contemplation and speculation ever could. Herzog's voiceover and interview clips are at their best when the participants simply state what we're looking at, how it was made, and who took the time and effort to draw it on these cave walls. The facts are what draw us in, like how a pair of scientists take a section of rock filled with the painted handprints of one person and follow his path through the rest of the cave by means of his telltale signature—a crooked pinky finger.

In between trips inside the cave (limited by the amount of carbon dioxide in the air), Herzog intercuts the work by its modern explorers about the lives of the art's contemporaries. They have done exhaustive research about the cave's layout (We careen through a three-dimensional map made up of extensive points of reference), the state of the land (a tundra, which would have allowed crossing from France to England via the low-level, frozen English Chanel), the wildlife they would have encountered (The cave appears home, not to humans or Neanderthals, but bears, making original artists' own journeys inside a risky move), and other peculiarities found nearby. Most impressive is an ancient woodwind instrument, like a primitive recorder, that was crafted according to the pentatonic scale. One man studying these finds takes a reproduction of the instrument and plays "The Star-Spangled Banner," and we can only wonder if the tune or something close to it was ever played long before it was a drinking song made famous by becoming a national anthem.

These men and women, like Herzog, are searching for a story to put the evidence in perspective (They have their own, occasionally strange, backgrounds: a juggling unicyclist from the circus who decided to switch to archeology and a perfumer who uses his nasal passage to construct past reality), and their pursuit becomes our own. The most hypnotic, overpowering moments of the film come, not from a surprising piece of trivia or a deep idea about the possible thoughts of our ancestors, but from long, lingering shots of those drawings on the walls. Set to music that incorporates a primal chorus of moans, Herzog simply places the camera in front of this art and lets us take in the play of light and shadow upon the sometimes startling detail within it.

For minutes upon minutes Cave of Forgotten Dreams holds and pans across these genuine wonders (It was shot in 3-D, which is perfectly excusable in this case, given that it further delineates how the artists incorporated the natural curves of the walls). Herzog's greatest gift with the film is allowing us to be left to be alone with our own thoughts and emotions on these sights.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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