Review – The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Last night I had the pleasure of attending an advanced screening of Werner Herzog’s (3D! Imax!) Cave of Forgotten Dreams with my colleagues from UC Berkeley and the local press. I’m unabashedly a big fan of Werner Herzog, even though I’ve heard that he can be difficult and invasive while he films you. I enjoy Herzog’s dour commentary, his bizarre analogies, his incredible juxtapositions and his lush filmic style–all of which were present in The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The opening shot takes you through the vineyards of France, in the most startling use of 3D that I’ve seen so far. The shot begins at eye level and rows of vines reach around you, drawing you in, until suddenly it reveals itself as a crane shot and you are pulled up and into the French countryside. This contrast is visible throughout, with wobbly hand-held action interspersed with sweeping helicopter and crane shots, switching between the personal and the majestic in a bid to both personally connect you with the imagery and take your breath away.

In what is probably the most successful sequence, Herzog takes us down into the cave with the group of researchers and with his film crew, in a delightfully reflexive move. He shows us the physicality of the cave, scuttling in through a narrow opening, then down through the gorgeous, glittering cave formations. The 3D camera manages to traverse these angles in an astonishing verisimilitude, I felt very much present in the cave with the crew. Sadly, I’m not sure how well this will translate to DVD (or to the above youtube trailer), which is a pity because makes this very evocative sequence difficult for use in teaching.

When the first paintings are sighted, it is like the first glimpse of an animal in the woods, far off, elusive, a blur and a sudden intake of breath. They are the red palmprints of a “man” with a crooked pinky finger. (While one of the researchers disputes that it was positively a man, this concept is dismissed in the narrative by stating that the person was over 6′ tall) Later we learn that we can trace his movement in these palmprints–that the overlapping of the prints shows that he first crouched down and then rose up to add the very highest prints. In my imagination I see the person (okay, probably a man, whatever that meant in the Paleolithic) preparing the paint, crouching down to apply it to his hands, then slapping on a couple of test prints before then rising up to “start” the overall composition. This is one place where the movie fell down a bit–film is the perfect medium to show this kind of movement, to show the poetics of cavepainting displayed in the shoulders, hips, and hands. It doesn’t have to be a fur-clad reenactor (as appears later on) to convey the physicality of painting in a cave.

Beyond the red palm prints were the more figurative paintings of horses and buffalo, of panthers and oxen, and some that suggest birds or butterflies. Again, this is the most successful part of the movie, as the joy of discovery and the wonder of the figures is translated through the eye of the camera. The camera follows the folds of the cave, the horses spring into action and my heart started beating faster. There was much discussion of this movement and the possible interplay of light and shadow and of the possible authorship of the paintings. A part of me was listening, but it was difficult, as I felt the fuzzy muzzles of the ponies in the palm of my hand and the calm repose of the lions sitting, flirting, and finally loping across the walls of the cave. The charcoal and etching of the paintings was heart-stoppingly fresh-looking, and I thrilled at the marks of a torch being refreshed against one of the walls, bits of charcoal still in situ beneath. Geologists and Paleontologists will enjoy checking out the amazing rock formations and the gorgeously preserved skeletons of cave bears, in probably the most exquisitely filmed display of bones scattered on a cave floor ever.

After this opening sequence, the movie’s pace and timing became erratic. We meet the researcher who laser scanned the cave (though of more interest were his dreams about lions and his background in circus performing–beware the Herzog interview, fair scientist!) and an aforementioned fur-clad fellow playing the Star Spangled Banner on a reconstructed pipe. Overall, the team working on Chauvet cave kept their cards relatively close to their chest, which was probably prudent considering Herzog’s penchant for insane interpretive leaps, but it did make me a bit sad as there was a real chance for near epic levels of outreach here. It was fair on their part, as Herzog makes a plunge into Mother Goddess territory, highlighting a possible vulva on a stalactite possibly paired with an ox, which he parallels to the Greek myth of the Minotaur, jumping tens of thousands of years into the future. I am tempted here to extend his metaphor and post a photo of one of my girlfriends in a Texas Longhorns t-shirt, but will refrain. Let’s not be ridiculous, now.

There are long sequences of throbbing, jangled classical music and sweeping views of the cave in proper 3D, with a better camera and a long arm, but I found these a bit dull and over-wrought. The discovery sequences were far superior in preserving the phenomenology of cave as experienced by humans, whereas these later, better-filmed sequences were crystallized moonscapes, devoid of people. At the end, Herzog finally goes off the rails entirely, bringing us to a nuclear power plant and some albino alligators that he somehow relates to our experience of seeing the art of ancient humans and our current possibly degraded (non-spear-throwing) existence. It’s a great quote with absolutely no basis in reality–the albino alligators were not mutated by the nuclear power plant, it’s a natural genetic occurrence.

Overall, the film was a lovely excursion into Chauvet Cave–something that most of us will never experience. One of the things I love the most about being an archaeologist is that you get a backstage pass to the world. As much as I can, I try to share that insider’s view into archaeology, but there are some things that are closed, even to the most famous of archaeologists (of which I am certainly not one). I would love to figure out a way to get that golden ticket, an invite into Chauvet Cave, but a 3D movie from Werner Herzog is the next best thing. Filmed exquisitely, passionately, with great fire and expression, I feel like I can overlook the oddities introduced into the narrative and recommend this wholeheartedly, to anyone who has ever wanted that elusive golden ticket.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

6 thoughts on “Review – The Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

  1. Colleen Morgan may not yet be one of the world’s foremost archeologists, but is on that track. Her thinking, writing & photography…all worthy of attention.

  2. Where can I see this film in the East Bay, California — SF -Berkeley_?
    Nancy Scheper-Hughes

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