Movie review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, documentary film by Werner Herzog, 2010

This documentary is almost certainly as close as you will ever get to exploring the Chauvet Cave in southern France, home to the earliest known cave art, and Werner Herzog provides an excellent vicarious visit. The cave was discovered in 1994 and speedily locked up to protect its prehistoric treasure, a multitude of paintings of wild animals roughly twice as old as any previously known. The cave was evidently visited by humans in two different periods: the Aurignacian, roughly 30,000 to 32,000 years ago, and the Gravettian, roughly 25,000 to 27,000 years ago. Most of the art is from the earlier period; an enigmatic footprint left by a young boy, paired with the tracks of a wolf, are among the fewer remnants of the later period. About 20,000 years ago, a rock slide covered the entrance to the cave, which lay undisturbed until 1994. I groped for an analogy; it is as if some future beings in the year 29,000 by our current calendar found an iPad amongst the debris at the lowest levels of the city of Troy, perhaps.

Herzog does these beautiful images justice; he filmed them in 3D under fairly restricted conditions (access to the cave is very limited). The result takes full advantage of the light of moving flashlights, the looming shadows of the film crew and scientists, and the billows and depressions in the stone walls, which the creators themselves exploited to present their visions of their animal cohort. The film also shows some footage of the world outside the cave, including the Ard├Ęche River and a natural stone bridge called the Pont d’Arc. Although one of the messages of the film, underscored by its title, is that the past is in many ways lost to us, this view of the paintings was evocative of the conditions under which they were created. For all our distance in time from these anonymous artists, it was easy to think that you could sense something of their world.

Herzog spends lots of times on the paintings themselves, noting their proto-cinematic aspects (a bison drawn with eight legs, for example, in an attempt to portray movement). There are some satisfyingly long slow pans over the images in all their mysterious beauty: a series of four overlapping horses, a rhinoceros with an exaggerated horn, a pair of rhinos apparently locked in combat, and many more. (The soundtrack gets a little intrusive in spots; silence would have been a fine alternative to what struck me as generic shapeless mystical music.) He also interviews some of the people who study the caves, a passionate and sometimes eccentric bunch. Jean-Michel Geneste, the Chauvet Cave Research Project’s director, describes the rich fauna of the time:

“You have to imagine lions, bears, leopards, wolves, foxes, in very large numbers, and among all these carnivores and predators—humans!”

Archaeologist Wulf Hein, talking about what we can learn of other arts at the time from other sites, appears wearing a rough fur garment of some sort and holding a replica of a tiny bone flute. He gestures at the German valley behind him and speaks as if he were an eyewitness setting the scene for a story:

“In the valley down there, reindeer and mammoth were passing, and it was very cold.”

Another researcher discusses the sounds we can imagine from the paintings, for example, the open mouths of horses suggesting their whinnies. These interviews support another message of the film, that although we can never reconstruct the past fully, we can represent it (and in fact we seem compelled to do so).

One of the most poignant signs of these early humans, to me anyway, was a series of red handprints they left behind. I am always moved by the sight of prehistoric handprints; they are one of the most vivid reminders of the humanity of these long-lost people (“I was here!” they seem to be saying). In this case, one of the people who left handprints had a crooked little finger, so his path through the cave can be traced by the recognizable handprints he left behind. The shadow of the unknown in which so many people once lived makes it particularly astonishing when we can identify a specific individual among those many, many anonymous generations.

In addition to its human traces, the caves contain things left behind by other animals: bones, some of them gnawed, perhaps by cave bears; bones of the bears themselves, including a skull that has since been encased in glittering calcite; scratches the bears made on the walls, some under the paintings and some over them. Most of the stalactites and rippling curtains of stone evidently formed after the rock slide that sealed the cave, so the painters would not have seen them. They emphasize the vast amount of time that has passed since its earlier users left it.

All in all, I highly recommend this film, particularly if you are fascinated by what we can understand of the lives of prehistoric humans or by the way scientists investigate these early ancestors. It is a dazzling visit to a mostly vanished world.


  1. Thanks for the link. I had seen some images online but hadn’t seen that site. Those are gorgeous photos!

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