No one shoots 32,000 year-old cave paintings like Werner Herzog. First off, they're not allowed. The storied German filmmaker was recently granted unprecedented access to Chauvet caves in south France, which house the earliest known human paintings. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the latest in his library of offbeat and mostly fascinating documentaries. Of course, Herzog's unique perspective is as much a draw as the subject matter itself — the man could make a movie about dirt and I'd be the first in line.
Fortunately, he's dealing with no such handicap here. The paintings that line Chauvet are beautiful, perfectly preserved, and enigmatic. But it's their technique that's most impressive. The conception that early man doodled only rudimentary stick figures and geometric animals is a fallacy, as the craft on display in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is staggering. So much so that early analysis doubted the authenticity of the drawings. Sealed beneath a thick layer of calcite, however, carbon dating proved them genuine.
In truth, there are no depictions of man on the walls of Chauvet. Instead, most panels appear an altar to the animal kingdom, with awesome recreations of bison, horses, lions, and now extinct wooly rhinos. Painted from memory in a dark recess of the cave, the images could only be seen by firelight. Art historians speculate that in those flickering flames, the drawings might have appeared to take life, which Herzog equates to a sort of "proto-cinema." Also of special interest to the director is a bison with a woman's body painted onto the curvature of a stalactite.
Complete with bizarre metaphors, inner musings, and tangential conversation, there can be no mistaking the author of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At times, the filmmaker even seems aware that he's being Werner Herzog. Not every one of his digressions proves equally illuminating, but you can't really complain about Herzog being Herzog in a Herzog documentary.
Funded in part by the History Channel, his input is infinitely more valuable considering the sterile TV special this might have been. His knack for compelling autobiography proves one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, and rather than work around his crew and equipment, Herzog mines drama from their creative difficulties. The team was permitted inside for just a few brief hours per day, and restricted to two foot wide metal walkways once there. The many precautions and restrictions protect the integrity of the cave floor, and the still fresh footprints and animal remains that have survived there for so long.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn't Herzog's best work by any stretch of the imagination, but at almost 70, it's amazing he's still up for the Indiana Jones routine. From the Peruvian rainforest in his youth to Antarctica and now some light spelunking, Herzog is one of the most traveled filmmakers alive. That he can still churn out progressive, stimulating entertainment is a rarity among artists his age.
And as obtuse as it may be, Herzog's ideology is invaluable. Through his eyes, Chauvet cave is a wonder to behold; he captures the transcendent beauty of the paintings and ruminates on the lives of their anonymous creators. Though sometimes he overstates his own eccentricity, the through line of art as an essential human quality circumvents his digressions. Our ability to appreciate the creative output of a society millennia removed from our own is a powerful concept. Here's hoping folks from the year 34,000 appreciate Herzog as much as we do.