To get some sense of Cave of Forgotten Dreams — a 2010, 3-D documentary just released, and now showing at the Georgetown Theater — check out the online interview with its director, Werner Herzog, at the Scientific American website (URL below).
The Chauvet cave in southern France had been sealed eons ago by a rock slide, and its contents were in a state of perfect preservation when discovered in 1994. Herzog says he felt as though he had entered “a time capsule.”
Animal footprints more than 20,000 years old looked as though made the day before. Equally startling was the superb lifelikeness of images drawn in charcoal on the cave walls. Herzog’s favorites are the lions’ eyes, hungrily focused on some (to us) invisible prey.
This is Herzog’s first 3-D documentary, and the added dimension is still novel enough for its own super-realism to seem at times obtrusive. But this distraction all but disappears inside the cave, where reality itself seems to inhabit some constantly shifting border between knowledge and imagination.
The movie is extraordinary partly because of the constraints it was made under, including the need to work with LED lighting only, and in utmost haste, so as not to repeat the travesty at Lascaux, where the breath of many spectators had led to mold forming on the cave paintings. Sometimes images essential to Herzog’s narrative must be viewed in semi-shadow, from a distance that keeps the viewer guessing what two or three steps closer might reveal. This challenge he brilliantly exploits. I often found myself leaning forward, straining to see better, as though actually there.
Nothing in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is stranger than the mix of weird and normal. The weirdness is everywhere — in stalactites, in animal skeletons turned by cave chemistry into elegant, modern sculptures, in spooky lights and shadows, in the dimly visible union of a bull with a woman’s lower torso, the sole representation of a human form on the Chauvet walls.
To get back to recognizable reality, you have to look at animals drawn in torchlight by men whose ceremonial aims are anybody’s guess. But those horses’ heads — soft-eyed and even a little sleepy — we have all seen, and we have no need of live experience to confirm the accuracy of those stalking lions.
Maybe the most memorable of all combinations of weird and familiar at Chauvet is a single handprint many times repeated, initially in a cluster near the cave mouth. The maker is not some generic homo sapiens, but an individual whose vivid singularity is manifest in his crooked little finger.
Among the gifts distinguishing such Cro-Magnon human beings from contemporary Neanderthals was, in fact, the need and ability to make images. There are clear signs of technological advance among the Neanderthals. But they seem to have left no pictures at all, let alone art still ageless after 20,000 years.
By contrast, our ancestors found ways to represent what they saw and what they imagined. We can only speculate about how much or little this contributed to their survival. But something in our DNA feels grateful. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a kind of hymn to image-making, then and now.
For 90 enchanted minutes we are put in close touch with a truth much easier to know than to imagine: that every single one of us is destined someday to be a person who roamed this earth in ancient times.