Reviewed by GREG KING


Director: Werner Herzog.

In 1994 a couple of French archaeologists discovered a limestone cave on the Ardecehe River that had been hidden for centuries following a rock slide. Inside the caves they found the walls covered with artwork and rock paintings that dated back some 32,000 years. These are pristine and astonishingly realistic drawings of horses, bison, rhinos, cave bears, cattle and other ice age creatures. These are the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind, and are a rare find. Scientists are using these impressive drawings to increase their understanding of ancient history.

It is easy to understand the attraction of this rare find for idiosyncratic German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose previous documentaries have included the visually spectacular Encounters At The End Of The World. For this documentary, Herzog has been granted unprecedented access to the Chauvet caves, allowing him to document some of the impressive artwork that adorns the walls. These paintings are “like a frozen flash of a moment in time,” Herzog says.

Getting up close and intimate through the lens of Herzog’s camera is as close as we will ever get to these historically significant artefacts as the cave has been declared off limits to tourists and casual observers by the French Government. Entry into the caves is through an electronically protected security door. Herzog was restricted to a film crew of only four, which included his regular cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. They were limited to four cold-panel lights, powered from battery belts. They are only permitted to step on narrow aluminium pathways that wind through the cave. However, due to the claustrophobic confines of the caves, it was impossible for the small crew to remain out of the shots. Herzog was also limited to only four hours inside the caves at any one time.

To add context to the discovery, Herzog interviews a number of experts – palaeontologists, archaeologists, geologists and art historians – who explain the significance of the find. Their enthusiasm and excitement over this historically significant discovery is infectious.

Like his compatriot Wim Wenders, Herzog has filmed this fascinating documentary in 3D. However, this is not merely a cynical attempt to charge a premium at the box office like so many current retrofitted Hollywood action films. As with Wenders’s recent biopic of the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, the 3D process is used effectively here. The process gives us a spatial awareness of the interior of the caves, its labyrinthine structure, its stalactites and stalagmites, its contoured walls, and adds texture to the fully formed artwork.

Herzog delivers his slightly pretentious, contemplative and philosophical narration in dour, Teutonic tones. There is a sense of almost spiritual awe as he talks about history and the spiritual connection between the Neanderthal artists and the animals. But he also takes a few small diversions during this examination of the caves that feel like padding. There is even a sidetrip to a nearby arboretum of a nuclear power plant, which houses several albino alligators. Not all of these are successful or as engaging.

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams will probably appeal most to those with an interest in art and history, or who fans of Herzog’s eccentric body of work.




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