SXSW Film: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Werner Herzog’s latest nature documentary, or should I say natural science documentary.  There is nothing living in the natural wonder that is explored in this film.  The subject of Herzog’s latest film is the Chauvet Cave in France.  The cave was discovered in 1994 and within was probably one of the greatest finds about our human predecessors and the animals that existed with them.  I do not want to get too specific in my review since it will start to sound like a science report, but I want to convey what I was able to experience during this film.

The Chauvet Cave is closed off to the public and only a select few scientists are able to go into the cave during certain limited time periods.  The entrance was sealed off with a steel door.  This is done to preserve the cave and all of the treasures it holds.  Werner Herzog was able to gain access to the cave with a small film crew during one of these periods.  He joined different sets of scientists on this expedition.  Everyone is required to stay on the metal pathways that were constructed throughout the cave.  This limits the amount of damage to the cave.

Along with the different crystals and rock formations that you may be familiar with in caves and caverns, the Chauvet Cave also has a floor strewn with cave bear bones from all different parts of the skeleton.  There are also numerous scratches on the wall from the bears’ claws and even some bear tracks.

While the paleontologist may have loads of animal remnants to study, the anthropologist has hit the gold mine as well.  The main reason the Chauvet Cave is of huge importance is because of the numerous, pristine cave paintings that are in the cave.  These paintings date back to almost 25,000 -30,000 years ago, twice as old as any other cave paintings discovered before.  These paintings are mostly of the animals that existed during the time of its creation.  Paintings of horses, bison, lions, and rhinos adorn the walls of the cave.  There is also the only known painting of a panther/leopard from this age.  These are not the modern day version of these animals, but the version of these animals that you might see when visiting a museum or seen drawn in a book.  One of the paintings of the lions is a male and female pair.  From this painting, scientists can determine that the male lions had no mane.  Some of the paintings are really beautiful.  The crown jewel of the cave is the painting of four horse heads stacked on top of each other.

Along with animal paintings, there are several hand prints from a human.  From these hand prints, it was determined that the person was about six feet tall and had a crooked finger.  This crooked finger is present in other areas of the cave with paintings, giving this person a kind of signature.  It should be noted that not one human bone has been found in the cave.  Scientists have come to the conclusion that the cave was not lived in by humans, but rather used for the paintings or for ceremonies.  Charcoal remnants from torches were used to date the paintings.

With these ancient paintings, the question comes to mind of why humans had the need to draw on the caves and depict the animals that lived with them.  What was the motivation to pick up a piece of charcoal and begin to draw?  Herzog uses this question to leave the cave and delve into the first known pieces of art designed by man.

Although Herzog is a bit of an eccentric, he only goes off course occasionally, including interviews with people who really do not bring anything meaningful to the film and demonstrations by experts that fall flat.  You have to love a director who manages to incorporate a Baywatch reference into a documentary like this.  These moments do provide some humor for the audience.  Because of the limitations of shooting in a place like Chauvet Cave, Herzog and his crew are frequently on camera.  I am sure he threw in some of the shots of himself for kicks.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is presented in 3D.  There are no obvious 3D gags used to make you jump or say “Whoa.”  It is noticeable in a few scenes that the area around some peoples’ bodies is distorted, but overall, it is a great use of 3D.  The paintings are not flat.  They are on three dimensional surfaces that curve or stick out.  3D gives these images depth that I believe would be lost in a 2D version.  I have already seen and heard from other people that the 3D was not necessary, and usually I will agree with them, but I do think the experience of Chauvet Cave is enhanced by the use of 3D.

While there are parts of Cave of Forgotten Dreams that were not necessary, these quirks are what sets a Werner Herzog film apart from Nova or Nature.  However, they do take away from the central subject and theme of the film.  I found myself utterly fascinated with what was shown on the screen, how it was presented, and the facts about the discovery and science of the Chauvet Cave in France.  The culmination of the film is in the last 15 minutes when Herzog presents all of the paintings in a series that very much reminded me of visiting an art museum.  They are on the screen long enough for you to take in the paintings, rather than a flash on the screen.  I am thankful for having the opportunity to see a screening of Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the South by Southwest Film Festival.   It is one of the most interesting and enthralling documentaries I have ever seen.


I give Cave of Forgotten Dreams 4.5 ” The Far Side caveman cartoons” out of 5.

by Sarah Ksiazek

About Sarah Ksiazek

Sarah is a Zookeeper extraordinaire who writes, edits, and is the resident trailer addict for Lost in Reviews. Do not underestimate her snobbery when it comes to trailers. She also owns/runs The Host Movie News which is a fan site for The Host movie adaptation.

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