Hyperbole fails. “A movie 30,000 years in the making! Goes where no film has gone before—or will ever go again! Mysteries and wonders leap off the screen! In a lifetime of moviegoing, you will never see another film like this!” Such ravings become mere statements of fact with Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary that demotes cries of “Awesome!” to the status of mere reportage. The proposition, quite literally, is this: you can pay your money, strap on your 3-D glasses (yes, 3-D) and witness what Herzog alone has been entrusted to show you, or else forgo seeing the most primal and profound evidence yet encountered of what makes us human.
That evidence lies buried in the cliffs overlooking the Ardèche River in southern France, where in 1994 a trio of spelunkers pushed their way through a crevice in the rock face and found the oldest known cave paintings in the world. The walls of the site, now named Chauvet Cave in honor of one of its discoverers, are covered with hundreds of images of animals, which most archaeologists believe to be approximately 30,000 years old. There is some debate; but no one doubts that the paintings are almost pristine, the mouth of the cave having been sealed by a rockfall ages ago. To make sure that the condition of the paintings remains stable, the entrance has been resealed, this time by a steel bank-vault door. Small research teams and their highly select guests enter the cave for only six weeks during the year, breaking up their time to avoid letting too much body heat and moisture build up. No other people are permitted beyond the steel door—except for Herzog and a skeleton crew, who received permission from the French Ministry of Culture to film in Chauvet Cave in the spring of 2010.
Some details of Herzog’s experience during the shoot are unavoidably worked into Cave of Forgotten Dreams, since passages through Chauvet Cave are cramped, and everyone must remain on a narrow steel walkway that the researchers have laid down. The crew members, with their battery belts and flat lights, could not help getting into the shots. This was only fitting; people who come to Chauvet Cave to explore someone else’s form of image-making do well to acknowledge their own. But Herzog also incorporates voluntary self-revelations. He chooses to narrate the film in voiceover and to make his presence felt during interviews. And the presence, as should be obvious from decades of his cinema, is far from bland. Speaking with an archaeologist about the difficulty of understanding the cave painters from the marks they left behind, Herzog likens the attempt to someone’s trying in the future to imagine the lives of New Yorkers based solely on a discovered list of their names. “Do they dream? Do they cry at night? We would never know from the phone directory.”
Never mind that the paintings are far from being piled up in a matter-of-fact list. They were made to glide and veer, warp and scurry by firelight across the surfaces of their chambers, where thousands of years of calcite deposits glisten like pearl. Herzog knows perfectly well that the spectacle is stunning, and he’s prepared to keep his implicit bargain by giving you plenty of it. (That’s why he complicated an already challenging shoot by filming in 3-D, so you could see the paintings in their plasticity, as they curve with the walls. Given the chance, I suspect, Herzog would have added Smell-o-Vision.) But he is not content merely to record these traces, however beautiful, of a vastly distant, all but unimaginable communal life. He is also determined to confront that unfathomable collective experience with what we know in the present—the idiosyncratic, the concrete, the individual—as if trying to look through both ends of a telescope at the same time.