Known for his unforgiving and existentialist filmmaking, Werner Herzog’s latest offering Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) takes a fascinating look at the Chauvet caves of southern France with contain the oldest known examples of human art. Since their discovery by scientists in 1994, only a limited few have been given access to the drawings: among these archaeologists, palaeontologists and now Herzog and a crew of only four.
For those unfamiliar with Herzog, his ponderous and philosophical style of narrative may be somewhat overwhelming. He switches from matter-of-fact descriptions of the blindingly obvious to poetic flights of fancy in which he infers his own meaning on the mysterious drawings. Herzog does not talk down to his viewers; only once are computer graphics drawn upon and this is merely to show how scientists have mapped the layout of the vast caves. There is an interesting, though somewhat arbitrary, insert of Fred Astaire dancing with his own shadow, a supposed homage to the earliest forms of art.
Herzog’s filmmaking is inextricable associated with unique musical scores, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams won’t disappoint lovers of his usual aural style. The score is incredibly haunting; a fitting mix of screeching strings and choral voices, combined later with uplifting pipe music, which is completely in keeping with the images of the ancient paintings. The use of sounds brings an incredible melodrama to the documentary, enhanced only by Herzog’s theatrical narration. Portions of the film are merely still pictures combined with music, and in some instance the sound of a beating heart.
The fact that you are viewing art created by living, feeling people over 32,000 years previous is emphasised throughout, and though this repetition does becomes tedious, the poignancy of it is certainly not lost. Pointing out a drawing of an eight-legged bison, Herzog explains how the additional legs infer movement in the animal; a type of proto-cinema, he says – ironically, this is a film which consists mainly of still images.
Although the majority of viewers will understandably be unwilling to sit through what is essentially ninety minutes of people talking about paintings, for a limited number who are fascinated by art history – or who are avid Herzog fans – Cave of Forgotten Dreams will be appreciated for offering the unique opportunity to view something truly exclusive.