Werner Herzog shows a primitive ‘Dream’ in 3-D

by Andrew Younger

Deep within the most inaccessible regions of Southern France lies the earliest record of human culture. Sealed after a landslide some 20,000 years ago, the prehistoric artwork adorning the walls of the Chauvet- Pont-d’Arc Cave provides glimpses into the imaginations of the Ice Age ancestors who would have otherwise been lost to time. Among these glimpses is the realization that these early European inhabitants congregated in the dark while flickers of light brought the images stretched across the wall to life. As contemporary audiences gather in the darkened multiplex to watch the masterful 3-D documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” director Werner Herzog parallels the creation and presentation of film with the primordial experiences of these first artists — and in the process illuminates the innate human desire of expression to powerful effect.

Discovered in 1994 by spelunkers, access into the 1,300-foot Chauvet Cave has been limited to only a handful of scholars and scientists. Through a miraculous coordination of local and national government, Herzog was able to assemble a four-person crew to film for a period of four hours per day for one week. Inside, narrow platforms designed to prevent the destruction of the calcite-preserved ancient footprints led the crew through the chambers of the cave. Because of the limitations in floorspace, the camera also captures the crew in the act of filming a documentary on the creation of early cave art, artfully mimicking the process of those who originally traversed the caves.

Similar to the experience of torch-bearing early inhabitants, Herzog passes his flashlight across perfectly preserved murals of now-extinct mammals in startling detail. A cave lioness caresses a partially obscured male lion, indicating perspective. A bison is depicted with eight legs to indicate frames of movement captured in a single image — a technique not seen again until the Cubist movement of the 20th century. A charging band of horses is composed on a contoured wall of the cave, adding a third dimension element to the work that parallels Herzog’s decision to film his documentary in 3-D.

After a thorough examination of the paintings, Herzog switches the focus from art to artist by demonstrating how these prehistoric people lived. The skulls of ancient cave bears carefully arranged on rocks within the cave suggest the germination of religious practice while a spear-throwing demonstration showcases how they hunted in an age surrounded by giant carnivores. The preserved footprints of an 8-year-old next to the footprints of a wolf is among the most moving scenes of the film. Is this the start of the domestication of animals that allowed civilization to flourish? Or are these footprints merely a coincidence separated by thousands of years? Scientists may never know for certain, but it succinctly demonstrates the enormous contributions these people made toward human development across vast stretches of time.

From these early, torch-lit paintings to the shadow puppets of the Han Dynasty, to the development of the camera obscura and eventually modern cinema, the creative spark that drove humanity toward artistic expression forms a chain from the present day back to the cave people of the last Ice Age. While the form may have changed, the power of this documentary proves that the dreams of these early people were not forgotten.

For more information visit wernerherzog.com.

Movie: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Directed by: Werner Herzog
Release Date: April 29
Grade: A