Some 32,000 years ago, a prehistoric man in southern France entered a bear cave, and for reasons that may well be one of the world’s oldest mysteries, he painted his palm prints in a random pattern on a limestone slab. Evidence of this Pleistocene artiste continues through the cave, his distinctive handprint identifiable by a crooked pinkie. In Werner Herzog’s fascinating new documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the audience is brought into a fantastical intimacy with the long-ago people who painted horses, cave lions, wooly rhinos, and other animals from their lives—or, as the director suggests, from their spirits.
What makes this particular “gallery” of rock art so extraordinary is that the cave was sealed off by a landslide more than 20,000 years ago, perfectly preserving its interior. Discovered in 1994 by three spelunkers, the cave of Chauvet immediately was placed under the supervision of the French government, which limited access to protect the site from deterioration. Herzog was allowed a few hours inside, with a skeleton crew of three, cold-light panels for limited illumination, and a small, custom-rigged 3D camera. Wending his way along a steel ramp (built to protect the artifact-strewn floor) through otherworldly thickets of stalagmites and stalactites, Herzog posits one quasi-mystical or poetical hypothesis after another. Perhaps the most memorable is that the Chauvet is a frozen moment in time representing the moment when early mankind “exploded” into spiritual awareness, expressed with art, sculpture and music (one of the film’s more eccentric vignettes involves a researcher who demonstrates a carved-bone flute).
In Herzogian fashion, the narrative ranges from purple prose to astute observation while the dissonant, new-agey score settles into an eerily appropriate cello sonata. Various experts describe and explain the paintings, and provide background to the artists’ Ice Age world, an era where gigantic wooly mammoths could be hunted down with a sharpened bone tied to a stick. Yet the film is most powerful just for being a film: The medium captures the paintings’ astonishing sense of movement, following the drawings across the undulating surface of the craggy rock walls and through different degrees of light. Though it’s a bit of reach for the director to proclaim that the extra legs on a bison were painted to convey motion similar to the frames of an animated movie, his use of 3D almost palpably penetrates the cave’s labyrinthine interiors, including the Chamber of Lions, an especially beautiful painting within a chamber of poisonous gases. Herzog also provides a weirdly dreamlike and thought-provoking postscript that might’ve been unimaginable from any other documentarian.