Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog's Documentary on Chauvet Cave

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 360 Degree Communications

Herzog, Werner (director). 2010. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Erik Nelson, Adrienne Ciuffo, Producers; executive producers Erik Enlson, Dave Harding, Julian Hobbs and Tabitha Jackson. Produced by the Sundance Institute, History Films and Creative Differences. Shot in 3-D, 95 minutes.


The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is film director Werner Herzog's attempt to share with us his rare glimpse at the amazing 32,000 year old paintings in Chauvet Cave, an Upper Paleolithic rockshelter in the famous Ardeches Valley of France.

Generally, we've come to expect that film tells a story. There's a plot to almost every film, including every documentary, perhaps a subtle story, that the director and crew are trying to convey. In the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog's story (but not the film) is essentially wordless, but it is not entirely visual alone. We can't go with him into the cave, and in some respects, the film is his attempt, and I keep using that word because it isn't entirely successful, to communicate the downright weirdness of Chauvet Cave.


Science and Chauvet Cave


As scientists, and Herzog interviews a lot of them, we tend to map and measure things. For example, there is a meticulous map of the entire 1300 feet of the cave's length shown in the film, all of the stalagtites and stalagmites, all of the calcite drippings, bacon and soda straws, millimeter by millimeter. Carole Fritz and Gilles Toselo show us some amazing two-dimensional copies of the art on the walls--makes me want a copy to hang on my own wall.

Nicholas Conard, Maria Malina and Wulf Hein draw some connections between Chauvet Cave and other Upper Paleolithic findings in the nearby Swabian Jura, like the Geissenklosterie flute and the figurines of Willendorf and Hohle Fels.

But, says Herzog, that's not all there is to the cave. The cave is a physical presence: the paintings aren't on flat surfaces as if in a modern art gallery but on sensually curved ones, that bulge with animal bulges.

Some of the surfaces were scraped down to a white canvas before accepting the palette of charcoal and red ochre. The cave is dark and lit only by pools of cool flat lights--it would have been lit by torchlight when it was painted, but the walls in the film still dance with the shadows of the people in the cave. Jean Clottes, long time director of the project, lets the visitors experience the silence. There is a scent, says perfumer Maurice Mauren, not really traceable, but present and identifiable to the visitors. The perfumer seems out of place at first, until you remember that wine is grown in the region; wine which itself is a peculiar blend of scent, taste, science and experience.


Claustrophobia and Chauvet Cave


More than that, and despite its size, being in the cave is claustrophobic, unsettling. The cave seems already occupied by the paintings and the shadows of the people in them, but in your own imagination by the painters themselves. Being inside Chauvet, says Herzog, is such an intense experience that you can't process it until you get out, until you've put it back into context with other prehistoric art on a global scale, as University of Paris researcher Julien Monney puts it.

Oddly, and I can't really understand that, the paintings are less interesting in the film despite, or maybe because of the detailed images of them. It's as if the original painting of them, the people who painted the rock art are the real subject of Herzog's film, the people who, truly, are too far in the past to talk to in any other way than through their paintings, through their choices of color and subject and their use of the curves of Chauvet's walls and the play of shadows to convey movement.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an amazing film, for its failures as well as for its successes, because it expresses Herzog's wrestling with the physicality of the cave, and the ideas and emotions it settles in him. I screened the film at home, so didn't have access to the 3-D and Dolby sound system effects, but even so, the strangeness of Herzog's experiences come through.

Don't miss this film: you'll never get a better insight into the experience of Chauvet Cave.


Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." ThoughtCo, Jan. 20, 2016, Hirst, K. Kris. (2016, January 20). Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 16, 2017).