Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) seeks to remind us of our links to the distant past through images of the recently discovered Chauvet caves of Southern France, which contain the oldest examples of art ever encountered. Many of the images on the cave walls are so fresh they appear to have been painted yesterday, but more surprisingly many of them are rendered with a skill and style that make them seem almost modern. Herzog’s documentary films are his own meditations on the stories and pictures that interest him. In this film he meditates on the nature of the past and its connection to the present day. The cave is nearly pristine, virtually unchanged from the moment when some 20,000 years ago a massive landslide sealed off the entrance. Although no human bones have been found, it is full of the bones of animals—deer, cave bears, even a golden eagle. Some of these animals lived in the cave while others were brought there and consumed or used for ritual purposes by the people who visited the caves. The images on the walls have meaning, of course, but what exactly they mean or meant is beyond reach. Herzog speculates, with the assistance of archaeologists and scientists, that they may have had spiritual significance and that in some way they signify the prehistoric belief that the divisions between the worlds of men and animals were permeable and sometimes could be crossed. Men could change into beasts, or beasts could change into men, or beasts and men could share one body. Herzog speculates that in the Chauvet caves and surrounding regions the modern mind was born. It is inescapable that as modern intruders into this cave we along with Herzog would impose our own philosophical questions on the paintings. It’s natural to ascribe significance, maybe religious significance, to the images in the cave. But who knows what the cave’s residents believed about them? Maybe they just loved to draw. Maybe they were bored, and painting on the cave walls was a way of passing time, having fun. Herzog displays the images with reverence and awe. The film is especially worth viewing in 3-D, which is especially effective for showing the twisting, narrow passageways of the caves.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes clear that whatever we wish to make of it, however we strive to interpret it, the past is beyond recovery.