“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a Review

The documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” has high-quality cinematography and is therefore recommended.  But boy is it flawed.  Like most of the films by Werner Herzog, this one takes the viewer to a place where he/she cannot go, Chauvet Cave in southern France.  The cave is filled with prehistoric animal drawings (and other artifacts) that may be as much as 33,000 years old.  The cave is closed to the public.

Chauvet Cave Rhino Painting

According to Sean Means writing in the SLTrib (13 May 2011):

The original entrance to the cave was sealed by a rock face millennia ago “creating a perfect time capsule,” Herzog informs us.  Now the entrance is a steel door installed by the French cultural ministry and kepted locked to all but a few scientists who study the cave paintings and animal remains inside.

After all, the French know from experience the damage tourism causes to such sites.  The famous Lascaux caves, home to some of the best-known Paleolithic cave paintings, are now overrun with mold from the breath of so many visitors.

The documentary is Herzog’s awkward attempt to bring the cave to the attention of a wider audience.  But instead of providing real information about the cave, he generally opts for New Age babble (and music).  And the film is at least 30 minutes too long.  The same images are shown over and over and over again.

If one is a believer in the adage that “all’s well that ends well,” then this documentary is not well.  The “Cave” epilogue is preposterous and incomprehensible.  According to NYT’s reviewer Manohla Dargis (28 Apr 2011):

 . . . The cave largely keeps his (Werner’s) indulgently shticky side in check, save for a needless obfuscating coda set in a freaky research center where albino crocodiles swim in the runoff from nuclear reactor plants.  “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is certainly an imperfect reverie. . . .

Here are two examples of opportunities that were missed:

  • a laser-generated layout (actually a myriad of small dots) that outlined the general shape of the cave is shown briefly, but is underutilized.
  • the stalactite with the illustration of female body and a bison’s head (fertility goddess) could have been graphically re-created.  Because of its location, it is apparently impossible to get a clear image.

Some of the interviews are silly.  The first interview with the circus-entertainer-turned-archeologist is too New Agey.  What is with the Fred Astaire dancing scene?  The interview with the perfumer is just plain loopy.  I could have used more science and prehistory, and fewer crazy musings.  Subjects that could have been covered include:

  • What was the relationship between the cave painters (our ancestors?) and the Neanderthals?
  • What happened to the animals depicted in the cave, the cave bears and rhinos?  Were they killed off, were they victims of climate change, etc?
  • A graphic of the ice-cap situation 33,000 years ago (and what has happened since).
  • Where did the cave artists come from, what were there origins?

Near the end of the documentary there was a question about whether the cave art represents the beginning of human consciousness (or soul)?  This is particularly relevant when you consider they had musical instruments also.  But this question is poorly answered.

Go see the “Cave” because it is the only way to see the art and environment in the cave.  The cave is a prehistoric cathedral; the art work is very striking.

The camera work, in 3-D and with much of it hand-held, is quite good.  And as Means has pointed out, this is an instance where technology (3-D) “serves art, not commerce.”

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10 Responses to “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a Review

  1. susan says:

    When I saw the documentary, I was intrigued with the subject matter. At first, it was a fascinating glimpse at the Chauvet Cave in southern France. I enjoyed the cave paintings. I tried to imagine who painted them and what were they thinking, their circumstances, etc. To see the 33,000-year-old paintings in a recently discovered cave was a bit surreal. I agree with you on the following points:

    – The film too long. Some images were repeatedly shown. The Director’s intent appeared to be to show differing opinions of the images from a few “scholars” and scientists who were allowed access to the cave.

    – The New Age “babble” was a bit much, although I did enjoy the interviews/passion of the circus entertainer turned archeologist. His passion about the cave seemed authentic . However, the interview and subsequent tour of the “perfumer” sniffing his way through the cave was so whacky it was comical. And you are right, how was Fred Astaire’s dancing applicable?

    – I agree that the documentary missed an ideal chance at explaining the depth of the cave. The laser-generated layout was briefly shown, with no further explanation. It would have been an ideal time to give an analysis of specifics of the cave.

    – The documentary turned into a political volleyball of “what ifs”, with way too much speculation. The end of the documentary showed a nuclear power plant built in the area (about 20 miles from the cave, as the crow flies). And lastly, the emissions of the nuclear power plant were “reused” or transferred to an area similar to a tropical greenhouse, with albino crocodiles swimming in the water. As I left the theatre, I wondered about what relevance the ending had to the cave painters of 30,000 years ago.

  2. Hugh says:

    I just walked out of this film. I agree with the review in general. I might have found it more intriguing if it were in 3d, but the theater didn’t have 3d. I watched about an hours worth, and if they actually had a little more scientific information I might have stayed longer. It’s a shame such a fascinating cave was presented in such a way. A 30 minute PBS documentary would have been far more informative.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      If you left after 60 minutes, then you missed the seriously bizarre epilogue at the end of the movie. It involved nuclear energy and albino alligators. Herzog must have been on drugs when he filmed and edited this segment.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    According to an interview with Werner Herzog at the Toronto Film Festival (mymag.com): “Tell me about these crocodiles.”

    Herzog: “Well, it’s a postscript in the film, because there’s a huge nuclear plant in the vicinity of the cave, something like twenty miles away, and with a surplus of warm water from this nuclear plant. A huge area of greenhouses were built on it with a jungle in it and hundreds of crocodiles and there’s some offspring that are albino crocodiles. These radioactive albino crocodiles are very, very wild and I kept saying to the production, “You might have to carry me out in a straitjacket at the end of the production, but these crocodiles are gonna be in it!’

    The animals in question are actually alligators and they are not radioactive. It appears that they were imported from Florida. There are twenty-some creatures known to be in captivity. It seems that Herzog tried a little too hard for his apocalyptic ending. Bring out the straitjacket.

    • Gregory Lock says:

      They are indeed naturally white alligators, which are found in the wild in the bayous of Louisiana. They are not albino’s as they do not have the pink eyes usually associated with albinos and they are most certainly not radioactive. Seems like another example of an uninformed anti-nuclear activist trying to create a furore out of nothing.

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  6. Jess says:

    I agree with you on this one. I love documentaries & am fascinated with ancient art. I have also seen other Herzog movies & enjoyed them (Rescue Dawn, Encounters at the End of the World). I was so excited to see this movie, & really wanted to see it in 3D @ a theater when it came out, but we never made it. When it showed up recently on Netflix, our family sat down to watch it together (boys ages 8 & 10). The beginning was promising – I was on the edge of my seat! Things really turned weird though, with the bizarre interviews, side tangents, & wild speculation. It felt like there were a lot of basic facts & information missing in this supposed “documentary”! By the end, I still didn’t have a clear idea of the layout of the cave or the artwork, or much information about the artists or animals they painted. My kids, husband, & I all lost interest before it ended, which is not normal at all for us.

    In general, I felt that it focused on unnecessary & unproven information. I would have loved to see more detail & research on the animals that live there & appeared in the artwork. More information about the people who did the art. Comparison & contrast to other ancient French cave artwork (like Lascaux). More information about why & how the cave is being preserved (perhaps with a tie-in or contrast to other damaged caves – again, Lascaux). Brief mention was made of the high likelihood of more caves hidden in the same geographical area, that would have been a cool angle to explore.

    There were a lot of WTF moments, but here are a few that I remember:

    1) Taking several minutes to discuss a piece of artwork painted on a stalactite. This was actually pretty neat. They were not allowed to take the cameras around to see the back of the formation, which was painted on all sides (understandable, as it would damage the cave floor), but the weird part was how they kept talking about what a neat piece of art that they couldn’t show us… Old photographs exist of the art – you can find them with a quick Google search. Was Herzog really unable to secure permission to use even one photograph of that artwork? Rather than just teasing us about what he couldn’t show us?

    2) Watching a woman (I don’t even remember now who she was or what her credentials were) going on and on with strange guesses & speculations about the people who drew the art. She really said some weird things. Really lady, your guess is as good as mine about some of this stuff.

    3) Seemingly unrelated epilogue warning about the perils of nuclear power & strange focus on albino alligators (yes, they are albino, they have pink eyes). I didn’t understand the reason behind Herzog’s obsession with these animals. They certainly have a striking appearance, but they are a known phenomenon in parts of the U.S. Many of them are bred commercially. I’m not particularly worldly but I have seen two of these in captivity (in Utah & California).

    I agree with another reviewer who said that an episode of NOVA would have been better.

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