Just in time for the holidays, Cave of Forgotten Dreams has been released on DVD in North America, making it the perfect gift for Christmas. It is not just a tale of ancient man’s artwork; it is a journey into another world that will leave you enlightened and wanting to watch it over and over again. Kristy Hutter reviews Werner Herzog’s acclaimed documentary.
There is truth to its title. The Chauvet Cave had been forgotten for approximately 30,000 years, untouched by man for millennia. When it was discovered by three French cave explorers in 1994, no one knew the paintings they found on its walls would prove to be twice as old as what had been previously deemed history’s most ancient cave art. Inspired by an article he read in the New Yorker about the cave’s prehistoric paintings, director Werner Herzog decided to delve into the history of Chauvet, making one of his most magical documentaries to date.
Filming for Cave of Forgotten Dreams was certainly an unconventional experience for Herzog. Because of the need to preserve the cave that had been blocked from external elements for tens of thousands of years, the public is not allowed to enter Cauvet, so Herzog had to obtain special permission from the French Minister of Culture to make the film. He was granted 6 shooting days and was only allowed inside the cave for a few hours per day due to toxic levels of carbon dioxide. Crewmembers were restricted to a two-foot wide walkway and were forbidden to touch anything inside the cave.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams was filmed using 3-D technology. After seeing only one 3-D movie – David Cameron’s Avatar – Herzog felt the technique would lend itself well to capturing the intentions of the artists, as many of the paintings were deliberately created on contoured walls. Although the three-dimensional effects cannot be experienced on the DVD version, the viewer is still able to absorb the awe-inspiring artistry that emits the spirit of prehistoric folklore.
Being guided through the cave prompts feelings of insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe’s history, but not in a depressing way. Rather, the viewer is likely to react in sheer astonishment that humankind existed that long ago and like us, used art as a form of expression. Paintings of horses, lions and antelope span the smooth walls, reminding us of a time when continents did not exist. What is even more incredulous (but genuine) about Chauvet is the collection of bones scattered throughout the cave that once belonged to prehistoric animals such as the wooly rhinoceros and the cave bear.
Much of the filming in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not what you’d expect from a seasoned filmmaker – it’s often unsteady or upside down and the lighting is tricky. But it seems completely justifiable considering the crew was given numerous restrictions as to what they were allowed to bring into the cave (for example, equipment only powered by batteries and lights that did not emit heat). At the same time, shaky camerawork almost gives the viewer a more realistic idea of what it may be like to walk through Chauvet.
Herzog’s film acts as a time machine that brings us back thousands of years to an era that is practically inconceivable to imagine, while bridging the “us vs. them” gap. In other words, it reminds us that “cavemen” were humans just like us, trying to survive, all the while recording their dreams, leaving them to be discovered by a visitor who came along 30,000 years later.