Distant memories or forgotten dreams?
Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary penetrating the protected mysteries of the Chauvet cave in France discovered in 1994. Inside are, by far, the oldest cave paintings known to modern man and have been completely closed off by the French Ministry of Culture. As such he faced somewhat of a battle to overcome the territoriality of the patrimony of the French but the result is so worth seeing. Becoming essentially an employee of the French Ministry of Culture, he took a one euro fee in exchange for the chance to film this rarest of areas and in turn handed over all the non – commercial rights to the film for use in schools and universities across France.
A contentious and hotly debated point already to this feature documentary is its use of 3D. The director himself being an outspoken condemner of the new method has however called the use of 3D in this imperative, and on balance the 3D effect does certainly bring another element of real to this place. Its subtle use really animating the cave proper. The contours and curvatures that Herzog is intent on assuring us that the artists themselves used to animate the paintings cannot be left to a 2D lens. Indeed 3D gives an ancient authenticity to this very modern representation. The drama of the formations as Herzog remarks must be brought to life and it’s an effect which you are glad the filmmakers insisted upon. The cave and the paintings have a tangible reality on screen, complementing our perception completely.
Herzog refers to this place as the awakening of the modern human soul and the beauty of the cave paintings themselves justify his claim. The plethora of imagery the cave itself offers as well provides gravitas to this idea. In one scene a stalagmite and stalactite are beautifully, yet subtly, used to represent the notion of us now and us then meeting across an abyss of time, but never quite touching. The paintings evocatively representing the innateness within humans for expression and the deep need to communicate life.
His narration makes full use of the free reign he has been given really bringing the cave to life in front of our eyes; provoking our imaginations. He also plays a little comparing the paintings on the wall and the movement of them that’s made possible by the casting of torchlight to real illustrative motion. It’s a light touch which he refers to as proto – cinema, we suspect not too seriously, but it is demonstrative of the whimsical and magical nature a cave like this can have on even such a seasoned veteran of cultural encounters.
Such a veteran is intent on understanding these artists of the past’s own feelings and purpose to their artwork but paradoxically begins to bleed his own opinions into aspects of the cave. A late circumstantial edition of a religious and spiritual dynamic to the area, as well as an overwhelmingly sacred and choral score emphasizes heavily an aspect to this place and its masterpieces which may not have been real at all.
Nevertheless it is, after all, one interpretation of this long dormant, now awakened, gallery. One narrative to a timecapsule of the past that can never be full reconstructed, only speculated upon. And perhaps therein lays the beauty. Herzog, as always, definitely steers away from the factish giving full stage to the fictish, facilitating the imagination vividly. A cultural and historical spelunking that in the end leaves one with a bit of a self reflective quandary. When were we what we are now? What are the limits to our own imaginations? Ultimately what really is it to be human?
As the beautiful and sweeping juxtapositions between scenery outside and scenery inside the cave draw to a close what’s left is quite a potent cautionary tale, one that warns against our seemingly over – indulgent and deterministic path. In this cave, 32,000 years ago what is shown to us is a graveyard of human expression and creativity. How much really have we developed beyond this point of communication and expression? The personalising of this place through the imaginative tale we are led down makes us come to the conclusion that perhaps we haven’t at all, simply made it more complex and thus just easier to live. Hayek said that the only positive to civilisation was to support more and more people and the findings of this cave and surrounding area, 32,000 years before any notion of civilisation existed, are self – evident of all the cultural trappings that we associate with development.
Extremely absorbing, a lot humbling and a little bit daunting, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a must see. A postscript vision of genetically mutated crocodiles really hammers home the message that the whole of the reflective and ponderous documentary has had at its core. How far really have we come? Where exactly are we going? And, just like these artists, 32,000 years ago, what legacy are we leaving as our paintings on the wall?