Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010): Homo Cinematicus: Culture and the Abyss of Time

Cave of Forgotten Dreams PosterWritten and Directed by Werner Herzog






Generally ideologically opposed to the idea of 3D as a cinematic tool, it was with much curiousity that I approached Werner Herzog‘s documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Perhaps among the last filmmakers who I would ever conceive of as employing something I’d long considered to be a gimmick employed to extort extra money from the summer movie going audience, Herzog’s descent into the Chauvet caves makes strong use of the technology in both technical and thematic ways and placated some of my largest fears about both the technology and any anxiety I felt about Herzog’s decision to employ it.

The film is structured very much as a Herzog documentary with its artistic and deeply humanistic line of inquiry, various, and varyingly eccentric, talking heads who illuminate the subject from interesting angles, well deployed classical music cues and, in this case, even some thematically appropriate use of a primitive sounding flute music that recalls the pan flute employed in Aguirre. Herzog’s now semi-iconic voice narrates the film with his particular combination of wonder and realism, his pragmatism and sense of the immensity of time and creation balanced by his deep affection for the cultural achievements of man against the backdrop of nature.

A Cave of AccountantsThe Chauvet caves make a perfect subject for Herzog’s ecstatic film-making. He employs various aspects of the archaeological and scientific methodologies for the preservation and understanding of the caves to demonstrate his belief that simply pursing factual truths about humanity will never complete our understanding of something that exists beyond what he calls an abyss of time. Speaking at one point about the caves being photographically and digitally mapped out to the square millimeter he compares this accretion of data to be akin to creating a phone book; the content is factual, verifiable, empirically true, but lacks the ability to tell us if the inhabitants of the cave dreamed, or were happy or sad. This speaks to Herzog’s conception of the “ecstatic truth” that this blog is named after, his concept that there is a deeper truth to be achieved beyond the truth of facts, beyond Cinema Verité and what he derides as its “truth of accountants”. The cave provides Herzog a sort of perfect image for this incompleteness of fact when, in the deepest area of the cave, Herzog and his crew are unable to film the entirety of a depiction of a woman on a stalactite without destroying the mineral deposits on the floor; the walkway in the cave, installed by scientists ends and the camera can move no further, the image of the woman and a bison hangs incomplete before Herzog and us. It is only later in the film when imagination and innovation lead to Herzog’s crew constructing an arm-like device to mount the camera on that a more complete picture is able to be constructed; it is only through a symbiotic relationship of fact and imagination that a fuller truth may be apprehended. Importantly, however, this fuller truth is by no means complete; implicit in the act of gazing back through this abyss of time is the elision of certainty from articulation.

Rhino in MotionHerzog’s inquiry into the human condition manifests itself in this assertion of incompleteness, of loss, and is corroborated by a scientist who posits later in the film that nomenclating human kind as “homo sapiens” – the man who knows – is a misnomer, as our knowledge and understanding are radically incomplete, that perhaps a more appropriate name for our genus would be “homo spiritualis”, the man with spirituality. The film links the development of figuration to the development of culture and each of these lead one back to this idea of spirituality and representation. The inhabitants of the Chauvet caves developed their systems of representation and figuration as a means to communicate, to speak their existence forward into the abyss of time. Herzog sees in the stark beauty of the cave illustrations what he calls a sort of “proto-cinema”; a painting of a bull gives the bull eight legs, loaning a dynamic sense and awareness of motion to a static image. By aligning himself and his art with this tradition of figuration and representation Herzog casts a line back through the abyss to draw together this first dawn of what he calls the “modern soul of man” and our current age. The capturing of images with a film or digital camera functions in much the same manner that these cave paintings did, as a means to communicate with one another and the future, to articulate the world and a state of inhabiting it.

Cave Contours in Cave ToursThis point is where Herzog’s decision to employ 3D technology gains a thematic resonance and purpose beyond mere spectacle. Having drawn the line between his film-making the and the cave painting, Herzog’s employment of 3D becomes both a means to replicate the manner that the cave paintings engage space beyond the vertical and horizontal planes as well as a means to communicate the physical reality of the space in a way that would be maybe more abstract in a non-3D film. The scientists at the cave speculate that the individuals who painted the caves would stand before the paintings and dance with their shadow over the face of their work; the flickering of torch-light against the curves of the walls would have loaned the paintings the illusion of movement. These engagements with contour and a three-dimensional space are essential functions of the art and through his use of 3D Herzog is able to more concretely communicate this to his viewer. If the intention of the paintings and, indeed, all culture, is to communicate – as suggested by one authority in the film – then it becomes a necessary action for Herzog to most accurately communicate the physical reality of the cave in order to most accurately convey the spirit of the art. 3D here functions germanely, essentially related to the content of the film and Herzog’s argument, rather than as an adjunct and perfunctory procedure employed to achieve higher box office gross totals.

Playing the Bone FluteThe film does not end its investigation of cultural artifacts with the cave paintings, it also examines musical instruments found from the area surrounding Chauvet, such as a bone flute, crafted from the radial bone of an animal, that was meticulously excised from a cave after its presence was hinted at by particulate bone matter among the dirt and rock that was being peeled away millimeter by millimeter. This flute is recreated by an “experimental archaeologist” who dresses as the Not A De Milo Among Themearly Homo sapiens must have, in caribou furs to insulate against the glacial chill at the time, and who plays a loose rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” on the instrument which is shockingly pentatonically tuned. There is also a respectable chunk of the film given to discourse on the various Venus sculptures and how these factor into the early development of figuration. While Herzog’s main interest is in the paintings and their ancestral relation to film – and how these mediums inform one another – his vision is not so myopic that he neglects to cede that culture is accounted for by a much broader spectrum than representative imagery. At one point Herzog’s narration even suggests that the natural stone archway above the river near Chauvet functioned as a sort of naturalized proscenium against which the people of the time internalized their own Wagnerian operatic conflicts, that there the inspiration of nature and living in the world at that time is contiguous with cultural and artistic pursuits that may be more familiar to a contemporary audience.

An Operatic Arc, A Nuclear River?A postscript that is positively saturated with familiar Herzog gestures. Herzog jumps further down the river that runs beside the Chauvet caves to one of France’s largest nuclear power plants. This power plant vents its heated water and steam by-product into a series of greenhouses less than 20 miles from the caves. These places constitute new biomes and have been infused with a thriving population of crocodiles. Herzog juxtaposes this warm artificial climate with the glacially cold world inhabited by the Chauvet cave painters in their time before turning his camera on a species of albino crocodile that has emerged in this environment. The camera hovers around water level, playing with the refracted and disjointed image of the crocodile bodies as Herzog opines that perhaps nothing is certain and that there are not two crocodiles, but one crocodile and its doppelgänger. He reaches to sympathetically connect the albino crocodiles and their apprehension of the cave paintings, should they see them, to the human position of trying to comprehend something beyond the abyssal veil of time elapsed, some 35,000 incomprehensible years.

This postscript, of course, Herzog has admitted to being a science fictive invention. As he has done in previous documentaries such as Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog has invented aspects of a story to lead the audience beyond the truth of accountants toward a more enlightening ecstatic truth. In much the same way, the master perfumer who Herzog presents smelling for other undiscovered cave systems seems perhaps a little too perfectly eccentric or conceived. When approaching one of Herzog’s films, especially his “documentaries” there must necessarily be a sensitivity to potential exaggerations and inventions; his films remind the viewer at all times, whether explicitly or not, that the narrative of history is an invented umbilical cord connecting us to an otherwise unknowable past. These histories, as created artifacts, are constituted by constellations of fact that the mind of the storyteller must connect, even should these connections themselves be fabricated or unfactual. There is an obligation of culture to illuminate and move beyond simple facts that tell us nothing; culture functions, for Herzog, as an interpretive act beholden more to enlightenment than accuracy. This divide is implicit in culture from its embryonic moments, from the first cave painting of a horse that abstracted the idea of a horse from its physical reality. The Ecstatic LionPerhaps is seems somewhat contradictory that abstraction and deception lead to a deeper understanding, but in Herzog’s argument these are the very qualities that allowed Homo sapiens to succeed where Homo neanderthalensis failed. These are the qualities that constitute culture and expression from their first moments and resonate still, as deeply in cinema as in the soul of the modern human who these inventions gave birth to.

2 Responses to “Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010): Homo Cinematicus: Culture and the Abyss of Time”
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  1. […] vers un blog en anglais qui décrit et étudie le film beaucoup mieux et plus longuement que moi. "Aimer" ceci […]

  2. […] that Herzog himself is quite sensitive to, citing that quotation again in his recent documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. His Nosferatu suggests mutations beyond the peace gestured toward in Coppola’s Dracula; like […]

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