Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Directed by Werner Herzog
A curious pattern within movie history: some of the most important landmarks in the medium's technological advancement (King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avatar) have not only taken primitivism as their subject but also the Faustian bargains mankind strikes with technology in order to rediscover and reconnect with its origins. While Werner Herzog's latest, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, remains a scrappy documentary amidst such marvels of hi-tech wizardry, it nevertheless constitutes a significant leap for the 68-year-old legend, who, though perhaps not quite a primitivist, has certainly made a career of going native.
In Cave Herzog doesn't voyage again into the primeval jungle but instead traverses time, gaining select access to shoot the prehistoric paintings inside the recently excavated Chauvet Cave of Southern France. In many ways the resulting film is typical Herzog: a documentary-as-adventure in which the marvels of nature are captured from unique vantage points, eccentric characters are memorably encountered (a fur-draped "experimental archaeologist" performs "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a millennia-old flute), and the director himself provides spine-tingling narration in his distinct Bavarian lilt.
What makes the film remarkable is its very existence. Produced under the most constrained conditions—usually only enterable by scientists, Chauvet possesses areas inhabitable for just a few hours at a time, and is navigable along a strict, narrow walkway—Cave required a special, lightweight digital camera that could be reconfigured on the go. It's also in 3-D. Here's one of the few films to come out of the recent 3-D resurgence that actually exploits its extra dimension, visually dramatizing the texture of the cave floor's encrusted litter of skulls and bones, palpably expanding the juts and protuberances that make its walls dynamic canvases. One sequence even depicts scientists' 3-D digital representations of what may have transpired in the cave over thousands of years based on the most minute and fragile evidence.
Thus products of the mechanical, electronic, and digital ages confront us with startling stories about the infancy of our species. But the meeting between futuristic and ancient is majestic, not traumatic. Herzog allows us to see what few have over the last 30,000 years: hauntingly detailed pictorial representations, mostly of animals, by what were likely the first men to create art. Careful to avoid conjecture, Herzog nonetheless makes poetic observations about our Paleolithic ancestors: pictures of eight-legged horses, as well as almost cubist-like repeating rhinoceros figures, might have been initial attempts to capture movement, a sort of proto-cinema; firelight would have likely thrown silhouettes against the wall's painted menageries, making possible the placement of man's own image against a theatrical backdrop—an excerpt of Astaire dancing with his dark double makes clear the connection to modern forms of shadow play.
Herzog's point isn't Picasso's, that after the cave paintings "all is decadence." His point is, rather, that of contact—that sophisticated technology can reestablish communication with the mysterious source of humanity, with the self-aware capacity to creatively perceive and depict the world. Having so often refashioned nature according to his dreams, in the face of Chauvet and the antediluvian dreams preserved within it Herzog simply stands in awe. And so should we.
Opens April 29