Review: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (directed by Werner Herzog)

Do you ever wonder why and how the great artists of the past first decided to become artists in the first place?  Have you ever thought about why, since before recorded history, humanity has always had the same desire to record and recreate their existence in the form of art?  I know I do and that’s why I was excited to see the new 3-D documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is probably the only chance that most of us will ever get to see the oldest, preserved art created by our ancestors.  The Chauvet Cave in Southern France was first discovered in 1994 and it is believed to contain the oldest known cave paintings in existence.  (Some of the paintings are estimated to have first been created 32,000 years ago.)  The Chauvet Cave has been very carefully preserved by the French government and the interior of the cave has remained so fresh and undisturbed that ancient footprints can still be seen on the cave’s floor.

For this documentary, German director Werner Herzog was allowed to film in the cave but, as he shows us, he had to work under several restrictions to preserve the cave.  He could only work with a three-man film crew, he had to stay on a 2-foot metal walkway the entire time, and, because of the high levels of carbon dioxide in the caves, no one was allowed to stay in the cave for more than a few hours at a time.  Once you see the film, you realize that all the restrictions are worth it to preserve the cave.

The paintings in the cave are so well-preserved that they seem as if they could have been painted just a year ago.  While most prehistoric cave art sites have focused on paintings of animals that could be easily hunted — like horses and reindeer, the Chauvet Cave also features paintings of more dangerous animals, like lions, bears, and especially rhinos.  What really struck me was how these paintings were created with a clear aesthetic purpose.  Several of the animals are painted in such a way that creates the illusion of movement.  The most famous of the Chauvet Cave paintings appears to feature a stampede of horses.

As Herzog makes clear in his narration, the perfectly preserved cave paintings show that “cave men” weren’t the simpletons we always assume they were.  Instead, the paintings reveal that they were observant and actually had personality.  One of my favorite parts of the movie was when Herzog and a paleontologist look at one wall that is covered with ancient hand prints.  The paleontologist points out that we can tell one person made all the handprints because the hand has a crooked little finger.  That hand print is also found throughout the entire cave and allows us, 32,000 years later, to follow the man with the crooked finger as he walks through the cave.

Because of the restrictions he had to film under, Herzog had to have his 3-D cameras custom-built and he and his 3-man crew had to put the cameras together inside of the cave.  It was all worth the trouble because the 3-D effects truly make you feel as if you’re standing there in the cave with Herzog.  Unfortunately, we probably won’t ever be able to see the world’s oldest paintings in person but The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the next best thing.

17 responses to “Review: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (directed by Werner Herzog)

  1. I still need to see this and in time I will be able to get to a show that’s not sold-out in The City.

    I’ve heard similar reactions from other reviewers and bloggers. Some have said that the 3-D itself (the camera rig being the same used by Cameron for Avatar) doesn’t really add to the film, but then again some reviewers still adamantly won’t believe that 3-D stereoscopic cameras has a use. I do believe that this latest docu-film from Herzog more than show the merits the latest in 3-D camera technology has in filmmaking.

    I heard there’s also an albino crocodile or is it an alligator?


    • I can’t imagine not seeing this film in 3-D. One of the reason that the cave paintings are so impressive is that the painters used the uneven surface of the cave walls to add depth and a sense of movement to the images. You have to see the movie in 3-D to get the full effect.

      There is an albino crocodile at the very end of the film. I’m not sure why.


      • The albino crocodile is there the same reason that an iguana kept showing up in several scenes in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. That reason being it’s Werner Herzog directing. 🙂


  2. Great Review! Cool to have you Aboard! 🙂

    I read the post before watching the video. The opening paragraph’s a nice set up to the entire review. 🙂 That’s wild that images so old are still viewable today (especially considering how clear they still are). That they were able to get the 3D cameras in there is pretty impressive, that’s a lot of trust they have in the director to not disturb the works in there.


    • One of the interesting things about the movie is watching just how closely the film’s caretakers are watching Herzog while he’s filming. It’s obvious that they’re excited about the movie but at the same time, it’s obvious that they were prepared to toss Herzog and his crew out the minute that any of them stepped off of that narrow walkway.


  3. This is the 1st I have heard of this film. Thank you Erin for spotlighting what looks like a visual delight. But I’m sure many will miss this gem if it’s only playing in the arthouse circuit.You made the point it must be seen in 3D, and I’ll have to say looks like must be seen on the big screen should be added.I’ll be watching for this one!


  4. It is interesting and perhaps surprising to see how capable the artists were. It presents intriguing implications for the sophistication of the culture of that era. Considering the detail and accuracy, as well as the referenced exploitation of the texture of the cave walls to create certain effects, were such well-drawn images purely the product of innately talented individuals, or was this art form taught and developed?

    As has so often proven to be the case, these “primitive people” seem to have had more going on, on a number of levels, than most of us had assumed. This looks to be a film worth going to some effort to see in the ideal format. I’ll second Jake in expressing appreciation for the heads up.


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  6. I just heard an interesting report on the Public Radio program “The World”. The subject seemed appropriate both for Erin’s review and the site in general.

    Analysis of cave paintings in Spain and France has revealed that some depicting animals may have been the earliest form of cinema. Series of images show progressive or alternating movement of the bodies of the subjects. The intent seems to have been to create an effect similar to that of flipping through a picture or cartoon flip book; passing a torch over each successive image causes the eye and brain to perceive movement.

    The link below will take you to a page with the short audio report. Below that, there is a short embedded video made by the archeologist who studied these paintings. By initially presenting the original comprehensive image, and then the isolated components/variants successively, you see the animals bobbing their head or tail, or running. It’s pretty neat.

    The ingenuity evident in these paints – the resourceful use of materials and environment, the acute observation of the dynamics of motor movement, and the anticipation of viewer perspective to create the effect – provides even more evidence of the intelligence of early humans. Apparently, caves were theaters showcasing what were likely the first moving pictures.

    No word yet as to whether or not there was a prehistoric Through The Shattered Stalagmite to review them.


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