Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens in theaters today.
You walk out of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams overcome by the power of time. Personally, I find it almost impossible to conceptualize life in terms of time to begin with—it moves beyond my understanding, both imperceptibly slow and impossibly fast, depending on the circumstances—but it is an inescapable and rather neat measurement that gives me the illusion that I can.
The Chauvet Cave in southern France, the subject of Herzog’s newest documentary, is a spot brushed to obscurity on the banks of the Ardèche River, unseen by human eyes for 20,000 years, before scientists discovered it in 1994. Twenty-thousand years, 200 centuries. Some of us might live to be one-two-thousandths as long as that cave is old, which does not include the 12,000 years it aged before it was closed off by a massive ice age rockslide, preserving a pristine collection of the world’s oldest cave paintings inside.
Herzog takes us into the depths of Chauvet with a 3D lens. A righteous use of a technology that has lately been demoted as mere spectacle to boost box office sales, it’s not a gimmick here, adding a layer of visual depth to a subject that is itself stuck within the depths of the Earth. (Another smart example of this is Joe Dante’s The Hole in 3D that expresses depth through the physical space of a pit in the ground and the psychological space of its main character; it currently remains without a distributor.)
Buried within the depths of time, in being presented in 3D, Chauvet Cave is given a layer that comments on its long and vexing temporal life as much as its spatial nature. In other words, Herzog’s use of 3D serves as a guide to the history and the space of this cave that, covered in stalactites and the pink, glittery glaze of minerals layered inches-thick, is truly beyond marvel. And yet, with Herzog as our guide our gaze is never paralyzed; we wander in to this government-sanctioned preserve with liveliness—Hello, Chauvet! Tell us a story!
Herzog engages Chauvet. In surveying its untouched layers with his crisp digital imagery, he asks it about the Earth’s history, about art and ourselves: what does it have to say to us after slumbering for 20,000 years? Herzog and his crew were the first (and so far the last) to be allowed to film inside the cave, and what they reveal are skeletal remains of woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers—their remnants scattered and shattered on the earthen floor. In other parts, the cave floor is entirely blanketed in sheets of mineral accumulation, the pate of a skull slicked over in its toothless maw. Rippling panes of variegated quartz hang like curtains installed like found-art pieces from the ceiling. The crowning artwork the cave fell asleep watching all those years ago is a panel of horse paintings dated 32,000 years old. You can see the chalky finish to where they were etched. They are tactile and fully dimensional. It wouldn’t be enough to say the aura of the artist is left behind in these paintings; it’s more like he or she is there with us, silently unfettered by time.
To bring the works full-circle with Herzog’s own presence, there is a series of eight-legged bison drawn on one panel; the extra appendages, archeologists and art historians say, are thought to be a way these artists projected a sense of motion in otherwise still imagery—Herzog calls them an example of “proto-cinema.” As his camera tracks quietly in and out of the narrow, claustrophobic spaces and plunges its nose up against the walls as far as archeologists will allow him, the specialness of what we are witnessing becomes clear in the reflexive dialogue between the proto-cinematic images on the wall, and their reproduction dancing before us in the shadow play on the screen.
In this strange place, the clock seems to stand still. As significant as the amount of elapsed time is in making meaning of Chauvet’s cave art, it too ceases to matter. One of the hallmarks of a Herzog documentary is his personal engagement with his characters. He asks them questions that don’t have obvious relevance to the story at hand. Here, one archeologist says she took a break from work in Chauvet because its landmarks and images had become the subject of her dreams when she went to bed. Another archeologist serenades us with a tune played on an ancient flute he found on a dig. Neither of these subjective interludes affect our understanding of Chauvet’s historic chronology—in fact, they help us forget it.
The archeologist who dreamed of Chauvet says she took a break from work so she could “absorb the experience.” Likewise, Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes us out of the crush of time in order to see all of its nuances. In its privileged peek at this prehistoric wonder, the film only hopes that, outside of the measure of old or young, we simply go to sleep dreaming.