May 11, 2011


“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is the latest documentary by the inimitable Werner Herzog (“Rescue Dawn,” “Grizzly Man”). Herzog is both a fiction/feature film writer/director AND documentary maker. Audiences tend to either like him or not. I’m a liker.

And you have to like HIM to like his films, because he will earnestly and tersely narrate the whole thing to you in his non-lilting, non-professional-voiceover German accent, as if you’ve been cornered at a dinner party of terribly interesting people. You can feel him straining for insight and understanding—often stretching out a story line—but I don’t mind because he does manage to find those nuggets of truth, and he leaves spaces for you to find your own.

To me, Herzog is one of the most human of all filmmakers, inserting himself and everyone else into his documentaries in the most casual and unpolished of styles. He films himself filming. He films his cameramen filming. We hear him asking questions of his interviewees, and then he interrupts them to probe further. He tells one of his interviewees about to go off and demonstrate something: No, stay here. But Herzog is not a Bill Maher-type control freak over his productions. It’s more what BJP2G would call the “personalistic norm.” That is, everything we do, we do humanly. Everything we do is personal and partly subjective: perspective, participation, appreciation, influencing outcomes, etc. And the personalistic norm is a good thing. Humans should humanize. Persons should personalize. Herzog needs to involve everyone and everyone-experiencing-everything in his doc as part of a successful experiment.

Herzog is always after “humanness,” and will baldly go after that question time and again in his work. In a recent interview on NPR he spoke of how, growing up in Germany after the War, he was often very hungry as a child. He eschews graphic violence in films and won’t allow it in his own (“comic book” violence—KAPOWEE!—is OK, though). I remember in “Grizzly Man”—the story of Grizzly Bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell and his death at the hands of a Grizzly—Herzog came into the possession of a video recording of the actual event. Treadwell’s girlfriend was filming the encounter until it turned deadly. She dropped the videocam while it continued recording the audio, and tried to save Treadwell. She was also killed. On camera in “Grizzly Man,” Herzog gives the original recording to a previous girlfriend of Treadwell’s and tells her to destroy it. He did not include the gruesome audio in his documentary.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” takes us into the Chauvet Caves in Southern France where, in 1994, the oldest cave drawings in the world, 32,000 years old—in pristine condition—were discovered. They are twice as old as any other cave drawings ever found. Herzog, entering the caves with a team of scientists and art historians is the only person ever allowed to film the extraordinary sight. And now WE get to ogle the exquisite and refined line drawings of animals (some also shaded in) of (mostly) a single, very talented artist. There are very strict rules and limitations for entry into the caves, including sterile boots and a vault door that locks behind you. The lights and cameras that Herzog and crew were allowed to bring in were not of the highest quality, but in the end, the effect is that we see the joyous and wondrous drawings in the same kind of flickering, dancing light that the Paleolithic people first to enjoy them saw them in: torch light.

There is only one image of a human being: a woman—but she is combined with an image of a bull. This is the only fantastical creature portrayed. The rest of the beasts are straight-forward but artistic renderings of the plethora of animals that surrounded these early modern humans (many of the species now extinct): woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, hyenas, wolves, horses, bears, lions, ibex. There are even large butterflies and insects. Oh, but the horses are so beautiful. Everyone in the film pretty much agrees that they are the crown jewel of the caves. The depictions are mostly profiles, but there are exceptions. A bison turns his head to look over his shoulder at us (or at a pride of lions).

Why all animals and no people? Perhaps the centrality and primacy of animals to the lives of the people. They were the daily occupation, the hunted. Yet they were not only prey for the humans but predators. They were food, they were the source of all kinds of life-sustaining resources. Perhaps, like the Native Americans, they were seen as spirits from which humans could imbibe many qualities.

The soundtrack is slightly discordant modern chorale singing and/or strings. I couldn’t help thinking that--as we silently reflected on the hordes of horses undulating across the smooth, curved, contoured walls of the cave--we were listening to HORSEhair bows dragging across the violin and cello(?) strings….

Herzog wants to involve ALL our senses. He even brings in a master perfumer to use his nose for us in the caves (doesn’t really work). At one point, Herzog makes everyone be SILENT and just listen to the silence and dripping in the caves.

I’m not really sure why Herzog calls this a cave of “dreams.” Herzog is obviously fascinated by every person he interviews, and asks them about their personal lives as well. At one point he uncovers that one of the archaeologists had been a circus performer. After seeing the cave drawings for the first time, this archaeologist began dreaming about them at night. He called dreaming: “A way to understand things that is not direct.” Perhaps this is where Herzog took the title of his film. And certainly these drawings were “forgotten”! Imagine the artist knowing that we—his brothers and sisters from the future—are admiring his work all over the world on large screens! Of course, he does know, because “to Him all are alive” (Luke 20:38).


--I’m one of those people who normally can’t see 3-D, even with the glasses, but this was in “Real D 3-D” (whatever that means) and it worked!

--I loved the eccentric German dude dressed in an Ice Age fur parka who played “The Star-Spangled Banner” on an ancient flute made from a vulture radius. Yeah. Herzog is that quirky. But he’s not out to make us laugh. He REVERENCES quirky.

--I really, really, really want to see the horses on a T-SHIRT.

--“Hippies” are named thus after “Hippos” which is Greek for horse. The horse symbolizes “truth-seeker.” Pope Paul VI was purported to have said that horses are the most beautiful animals God ever made. If he did, I concur.

--Herzog believes in and wants to put “ecstatic truth” in his films. He wants to go for “emotional accuracy” above all. I believe he has achieved it in “Cave.”

--A virtual cave has been created by laser scanners. One portion of the cave is called “Sacre Coeur.” :]

--Question asked in the film: “Was Stone Age man a romanticist?”

--The ancient artist(s) solved a question paleontologists had: extinct male “cave lions” didn’t have manes!

--Sometimes the artist created several outlines of the same animal or gave it extra legs to denote motion! Looks almost like a cartoon or zoetrope at times, especially with the flickering light! Herzog also filmed REAL fade-ins and fade-outs with the muted lights they were allowed to use in the cave!

--If you love this NATGEO type stuff, you’ll love “Cave.” There’s just too many cool factoids to mention here.

--Neanderthals didn’t do art.

--The 20 or so pairs of older people in my theater were the stillest movie-goers EVER. Even during the previews. They didn’t eat, talk, cough, laugh, move—nothing. I have never experienced such a thing. They made me feel positively hyperactive. Did they feel that viewing this extraordinary gallery was a privileged, sacred experience?

--Herzog’s ending was bizarre and anti-climactic: albino alligators, doppelgangers, “nothing is certain, nothing is real”—SAY WHAT???

--Werner Herzog on the Chauvet Caves: “It’s as if the modern human soul burst forth here.”

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