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The Cave of Forgotten Dreams


A documentary by Werner Herzog in which Herzog and his film crew were allowed to explore the Chauvet Cave discovered in the south of France in 1994.  In this cave are drawings said to be 35,000 years old, some are separated by thousands of years.  The drawings are like lines of charcoal depicting the local fauna of that Ice Age period:  ibex, bison, mammoth aurochs, buffalo and maneless lions.  Herzog had to get permission from the  Ministry of Culture to film these drawings.  Entrance to the caves is strictly controlled in order to preserve the caves from human pollution.. The floor of the caves calcifies animal bones, no evidence of human settlement here.  We get experts talking about the meaning of the drawings:  we learn about palaeolithic weapons and musical instruments.  There is speculation on the meaning of the drawings, one shows a woman-bison sexual union.  There is a musical background.  There is no computer trickery and no dramatisation.


This documentary is undeniably quite beautiful.  The feeling of an alien world separated from us by thousands of years is quite skilfully done.  The camera lingers over the details of the drawings, we get an anticipation of the Braque-like painting of someone descending stairs (many limbs are meant to convey movement) and these similarly try to show motion in the animals.  There is clever three dimensional use of the surface of the cave walls.  The drawings themselves are like sparse totems scrawled on the beige and ochre maquette of the cave walls.  I think we are meant to think of a breathless chilly Sistine chapel of the age of Cro-Magnous and Neanderthals.  It’s definitely a privilege to get inside the caves, even though on film, then we feel a stunning immediacy in the animal forms and their dynamic movements  The scientists speak with enthusiasm from their painstaking analyses and show an almost shamanistic glee in bringing that early world into the 21st century cinema.  I was occasionally entranced but I’m afraid that I felt it could have been a much better film.  There was too often a suffocating reverence, a look of critical  distance as if we’re meant to worship the cave’s images and leave our doubts at the entrance.  It reminded  me of those paternalistic and stuffy science documentaries from the mid 20th century BBC, e.g. Clarke’s Civilization or Bronski’s Ascent of Man. It’s as if Herzog is so grateful to be allowed into the cave that the price he has to pay was to be patronised and kept in his place.  This is the filmmaker who in his other films has shown humanity battling with nature, but here he is like a swatty schoolboy who must always show respect.  Of course the caves are the preserve of science and this must continue as a matter of urgency, the caves are too precious and fragile to be tourist pilgrimages.  However, the price to be paid for that is an overall acceptance of academic condescension and it becomes quite amusing to see these self appointed shamans get floridly Gallic about subjects they can only speculate about.  We get unprovable assertions about the mind of the Palaeolithic people.  Where there is no solid evidence we get wishful thinking and pseudo-mystical postulates about a world too far away in time.  I would have preferred artistic imagination from Herzog himself, not, God forbid, a TV style dramatization with actors in bearskins, but maybe a recreation of the fauna that inspired these drawings.  These spokespeople were as subjective as any writer such as Jean Auel or William Golding  in the Inheritors.  The music didn’t help, it sounded like choristers getting pissed in an early Pink Floyd session.

The academic sanctity of this documentary made me reach irreverent thoughts about my preference for a left field treatment or something from the film 10,000 B.C., maybe some campers from a higher civilization visiting this arctic region and leaving their equivalent of “Kilroy was here” on the walls.  What’s the artistic status of the drawings, are they inherently outstanding or does this antiquity confer value?   An ashtray on earth is worthless, on Mars even though still an ashtray it would be extremely significant.  Occasionally great to look at but it plods.

Watched at Chapter, Cardiff.


Posted by on May 7, 2011 in Documentary, Film Reviews


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