REVIEW: ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ (2011)

Grade: B

There has been much academic debate about which point during human evolution denotes the creation of the soul. There are many who argue that it is our use of tools that separates us from lower life forms and, as Kubrick’s 2001 purports, our ability to use those tools for acts of evil. Film director and documentarian Werner Herzog, however, belongs to the camp that believes it is not man’s use of tools that makes us human, but rather our ability to create art.

Such is the thesis of the latest documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams from the auteur behind such films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Grizzly Man. Through the exhibition of ancient cave paintings and artwork Herzog shows us thought provoking and poignant, if sometimes distracted visions of the origin of human innovation. Stunning cinematography and Herzog’s customary monotonic narration make up for the peculiar music choices and direction that is almost too self-aware to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams a great historical documentary.

For the film German-born director Werner Herzog and a limited camera crew were granted exclusive access by the French government to the Chauvet Cave in Southern France. Discovered in 1994 the Cave contains the oldest known cave paintings that remain gloriously intact thanks to the cave being sealed for 30,000 years. Images of buffalo, rhinoceroses, and cattle dance across the unevenly textured walls creating an almost cinematic effect that shows how forward thinking ancient humans were. The images themselves are almost enough to sustain the film and there is a lengthy narration-free segment in the final act of the film where Herzog allows them to do just that.

Throughout Herzog’s works there has always been a man versus nature theme present and this film is no different although he allows the more prevalent theme of art as the basis for humanity to dominate. Despite his lack of tonal variation there is an undeniable sense of giddiness in Herzog’s voice when he delivers the line of narration: “it is as if the modern human soul were awakened here.” That is the theory that Herzog wants to present and he finds adequate source material to back it up.

Peter Zeitlinger, who has worked on nearly every Werner Herzog film since the early 90s, returns as cinematographer and his fantastic camera work is the undeniable highlight of the film. As the camera swerved in and out of tight spaces and smoothly shot up from ground level to a hundred feet in the air I often found myself pondering how those shots were captured. The secret was revealed, however, in the last shot of the film before the Postscript when Zeitlinger walks into the shot and catches the camera revealing that it had been attached to a miniature helicopter. This serves to emphasize Herzog’s message about evolution and shows how human creativity has surged so far beyond cave paintings to take root in a new ever-changing art form – cinema.

The beautiful visual experience is not enhanced by the curious non-diegetic sound (sound that doesn’t exist in the character’s world) choices that Herzog makes. The score, composed by Ernst Reijseger, features choral voices that stagger their atonal harmonies in an attempt to create a feeling of wonder. Instead the sound becomes grating and distracts from the conversations that undoubtedly took place in the cave. There is also a curious decision to insert the sound effect of a beating heart after one of the scientists asks the crew to hold a moment of silence. I believe Herzog’s attempt was to show that self-awareness of our own heartbeat is an important step towards the awakening of the soul, but it seems to contradict itself. After all, it is not our heartbeats that make us human, but our drive to create.

Like most Herzog documentaries he points the camera at whatever fascinates him the most at a specific point in time, which is why we see several images of a portly French perfumist who is not directly related to the exhibition, but exists in the film to show the uniqueness of humankind. The bizarre post-script was an example of Herzog’s fascination with nature distracting from his overall vision, but for the most part he kept to the point.

One of the few disappointments about the film was that Herzog seemed pretty intent on allowing one theory for the existence of the paintings to dominate – that they were created primarily for spiritual purposes. That theory is widely supported and very well may be true, but I would have liked to see other avenues explored and the cinematic comparisons to be fleshed out more. Maybe the cave drawings of animals were just popcorn entertainment like today’s summer blockbusters. Maybe the sculptures of women’s bodies with exaggerated sexual organs were because men 30,000 years ago were as perverted as they are today. Maybe, like Herzog they were also using images to search for the human soul.

Bottom Line: Cave of Forgotten Dreams is worth seeing because of the beautiful imagery that Herzog captures and the thought provoking narration he provides.

NOTE: 3D prints were not available for the screening. The film was viewed in standard 2D.

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  • Utterly fascinating. I only recently watched Grizzly Man, that being the only other Werner Herzog film to which my world weary eyes have viewed, but found it interesting and engaging. I’m going to try and check this one out sooner rather than later. Thanks!

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