Original release: March 25th 2011
Certificate (UK): U
Running time: 90 minutes
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes
Werner Herzog has done it again. With his omnivorous eye – which has most recently darted from low budget sci-fi collage, The Wild Blue Yonder, to crazy ursine documentary, Grizzly Man, via Hollywood-produced snake-eating Vietnam drama, Rescue Dawn, to off-beat Aeschylean psychological horror (based on a true story), My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?- the German auteur has selected, for his latest trick, a ritualised pseudo-documentary on Palaeolithic artworks. How could he fail?
Well, let’s take a look at the facts:
What a deliciously profane triumvirate. On the basis the first two: it’s the film Herzog was made to make. Landing on 3, perfection is turned farcically on its lovely head. I laughed when I first heard about it, but Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not a joke. Nor is it the fourth horseman of the apocalypse.
The happy marriage of Herzog and the Chauvet Cave begins rather more in sickness than health. The first problem for its existence was legislative. Herzog was required to become an employee of the French government (for a nominal salary of €1, on which he paid tax) in order to obtain permission to access the cave.
Next, the hindrance of exacting conservational measures, which necessitated the use of equipment specially designed to reduce the emission of heat, and restricted the number of crew to four to prevent the damaging accumulation of water vapour from breath. With access and equipment sorted, the third inconvenience was merely the hazardous levels of radon and carbon dioxide in the cave, which limited hours of contiguous work to two.
The fourth obstacle is Herzog’s syncopated imagination, which wouldn’t consent to a straightforward documentary. Here’s a man who sautéed his shoes in garlic, herbs and stock for five hours, and ate them, having lost a bet to fellow filmmaker Errol Morris. BBC Horizon, then, this most certainly ain’t.
Rather than frustrate a production which aspires to slickness, these technical limitations instead present an opportunity to Herzog’s ingenuity. Confined to a 2ft wide steel walkway throughout the cave, the equipment and crew have nowhere to hide from the camera. It becomes a film of people making a film, a documentary of documentarists, both cinematic and scientific.
During the interviews with researchers and specialists, Herzog will playfully loosen the bonds of relevance, almost impertinently reaching into their lives and catching them off-guard. There’s a great moment when a young, long-haired French archaeologist makes a cursory reference to his past, and Herzog leaps on it, pressing the increasingly confused and diffident youngster with question after weird question: And what did you do before archaeology? I was in the Circus. Were you a lion tamer? No. What were you? I rode the unicycle. Did you want to be a lion tamer?
He goes on to interrogate his dreams. There is a distinctly German patriarchal benevolence in his tones, and more of self-awareness and humour than perhaps some at the screening I attended gave him credit for. It’s not blindly ingenuous; it’s teasingly ironic. The rapport between Herzog and everyone else involved is candid, mirthful, and quietly joyous – after all, they’re a privileged few.
Every contour of the cave is represented in such undulant detail that we can almost feel it. It’s mesmerising. 30,000 years just melt away in the wondrous proximity that this film delivers. When the footage focused solely on the cave, I forgot my headache.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not only an invaluable record of the artistic and spiritual birthplace of our species, neither is it just a lyrical disquisition on the ritualistic qualities of scientific inquiry and filmmaking, nor merely the latest verse in Herzog’s secular mythology of “ecstatic truth” and chaos – though all of these things are of course venerable qualities.
Both a film and its own making-of, Cave of Forgotten Dreams leaves a truly human trace, just like the 30,000 year-old traces it evokes in all the beautiful intransigence of their impossible propinquity. In the falling cadences of his sibilant voice, Herzog beguiles us with his vision of the mysterious constancy of the human spirit, to the scattered music of an original score by Ernst Reijseger, which stutters and whistles and eddies up to unexplained crescendos and unnameable epiphanies.
If you’re interested in art, history, art history, Herzog or humanity, see it.
Dominic is an English graduate, promiscuous dilettante and epistemological liability. He likes the sentimentalisation of loathsomeness, fetishized Teutonic Romanticism, the labour theory of value and Manchester United’s transcendent Bulgarian striker, Dimitar Berbatov. He abominates Certainty, curses The Wealth of Nations, and detests only mayonnaise more than asinine bathetic turns.
His favourite kinds of film are laborious, unyielding, laboriously unyielding, anything you’ve never heard of, and pornographic. At twenty-three, his achievements include A Spectroscopic Study of the Notion of Perineum in Jane Austen’s Later-Early Period, for which he won a MOBO award, and this sentence.