By Clarissa K. Wittenberg

2010, 3D
Director: Werner Herzog

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary of a cultural treasure by a master filmmaker. Werner Herzog, a brilliant, intense man, confronts the art and artifacts of early man with a very disciplined and muscular direction. He is thrilled to explore the interior of the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche valley in southern France and insists the viewer be thrilled as well. This film is a demanding graduate level course in anthropology, paleontology, art history, geography, mythology, and scientific documentation and preservation. Despite its rigorous lectures, and there are many by experts, there is a mesmerizing tone to this unadorned film—Herzog and his crew wear only utilitarian clothes, no make up, no special effects, hardly any lights—that captures the viewer. Because the crew is always visible, it seems as though the viewer is with them in the cave.

There are moments of great charm: the awe felt and communicated by Herzog as narrator throughout the film; the story of circus performer turned anthropologist; the smile of a perfumer, a “nose,” who smells the cracks in the mountain seeking to find the traces of the “perfume” that come from caves.

Two complaints: the 3D is mostly all right, but sometimes is used in a childish fashion and the need for glasses adds to the cost of seeing the film; and the music sometimes intruded.

The paintings, mostly drawings, are beautiful and are works of art that were elaborated over centuries. Artists came years and centuries later and drew over and beside the original art work. The images curl around the boulders of the wall, are seen on a wall behind another wall. The drawings evoke movement much as the Greek sculptures on the Parthenon appear wind blown. Some show horses with many legs, much like stop action photography. The paintings of horses, lions, bison, giant cave bears rival any art in any culture. The red handprints of one man are seen throughout the cave, recognizable because of a crooked little finger. There are footprints visible in the floor of the cave, including one of a young child.

The French, having seen the breath of thousands of visitors to the Lascaux caves bring fungal infections and deterioration of its priceless archaic drawings, imposed severe restrictions to the Chauvet cave when it was discovered in 1992 by three cave explorers. Chauvet is a much earlier site, circa 30,000 B.C. than Lascaux which is dated about 17,000 B.C. The Chauvet curators installed a metal path, and set strict time limits to protect the cave. All lighting is kept very low and no one may touch the walls or walk on the unprotected floor.

When you see the film, you will note in this cave the artist did not paint his own images on these walls, although there are images and objects of sumptuous women. One unforgettable image is that of a partial body of a woman with a bison covering her head and embracing her sex. We can see things that the painters of the cave could not see as we have experience of the entire world to bring to bear on their recorded experience. The links are clear to the aboriginal art of Australian, to the art-shaped culture of Native Americans and the scrolls of Asian art. We know the sculptures of the Cyclades. Even though extraordinary migrations occurred, the similarities are mysterious.

One final touch, garish and surreal, is the coda added to the end of the film showing a nuclear plant near to the cave, releasing clouds of hot steam that are captured in a biosphere with wild vegetation and albino alligators. A grim reminder, perhaps?

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (90 minutes, at area theaters) is Rated G.

Clarissa K. Wittenberg was a founder and editor of the Washington Review, a journal of arts and literature that documented cultural life in Washington for over 28 years. She is currently Creative Director at the Washington Film Institute.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.