The Mute Stones Speak II: Werner Herzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’

San Francisco: Mission District 5/18/10

          Werner Herzog’s fascinating documentary on the Chauvet Cave paintings, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’, asks many questions but suggests answers to very few.

           How could people 30,000 years ago on the fringes of the great ice sheets paint images of herds of animals on cave walls but not themselves?  Were the multiple impressions of their painted palms on the cave walls signatures?  Was there a purpose behind the bestiaries or were the drawings paleolithic graffiti?

           We will never know.

           Discovered 17 years ago, the French government has closely protected the Chauvet Cave paintings.  Only scientists and scholars have access and then for very brief visits in a narrow annual window.

           The great German film maker, Werner Herzog, got permission to shoot in the cave under tight restrictions including limited lighting.  Still, his images of the cave and its drawings are unforgettable.

          Most of the animals portrayed have disappeared from Europe or gone extinct.  The artists shared the cave with cave bears whose claw marks on the walls mar some drawings and underlie others.  One’s calcified skull rests mute on the cave floor.

           The Chauvet Cave looks very different today than it did 30 millennia ago.  Water dripping into the cave through limestone has created stalactites and stalagmites and a glitter absent during the dryness of the last ice age.

           Time and again, Herzog returns to the heads of three horses.  They are extraordinarily modeled.  But what’s amazing, haunting is the expression in their eyes.  I’ve seen thousands of representations of horses done before the mid-nineteenth century.  I can’t think of any that tell you as much about horses in motion as these.

           The narration and interviews are quite wonderful, witty, wise.  Herzog, himself, is the voice of his film.  But it’s the pictures the audience came to see.  And, viewers are still absorbing their reactions to drawings of lions, bisons and horses as the narrative line advances.

           It’s not often I’d suggest reading up on a documentary before seeing it.  ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is one of those exceptions.

           I recommend Julian Bell’s ‘Dreams from the Underground’ in the New York Review of BooksHerzog’s website has two lengthy reviews and a good deal of background on the film.

          But with or without preparatory reading, go see ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ – whether in 3-D or normal projection.  It’s a film you’ll leave wanting to see again – and again.