Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Director: Werner Herzog

In which Herzog slings his hook with the Hitler Channel… sorry, the History Channel for a unique trip into the past. I use the word “unique” advisedly, of course; Herzog’s film will quite likely be the only one ever made about the Chauvet Cave. Normally Herzog’s cinema revolves around “extreme” people and situations, and this is true of both his fiction and documentary films (although obviously it’s a bit foolhardy to speak of these as entirely separate things); in this case, though, he’s putting himself into a bit of an extreme situation, at least in terms of the restrictions placed on him as he goes through the cave… access to the cave is limited to shooting from a narrow walkway with a crew of no more than four people including himself, filming with very small non-professional gear, using only certain lights that don’t radiate heat, and all the while dressed in very particular clothing. And shooting in 3D, which posed challenges of its own (alas, that effect was entirely lost on TV, but at least SBS showed it in high-def tonight). And there’s less than a week to shoot the film and only a few hours each day in which to do so. Because not only is the environment extremely fragile, it’s also kind of toxic thanks to the carbon dioxide levels down there. Chauvet, of course, is home to the oldest rock art in Europe, if not the world, and this stuff really is quite amazing; as Herzog notes, this isn’t “primitive”, it’s quite refined and impressive. The film behaves somewhat like a conventional doco on this sort of subject, trying to locate the cave within the context of other Stone Age cultures in Europe and that sort of thing, but it still has its recognisably “Herzog” moments: the archaeologist playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a tens-of-thousands years-old ivory flute, the perfume-maker trying to literally sniff out hidden caverns, and the “postscript” with the nuclear power plant and the crocodiles. This is great stuff that feeds into my own particular fascination with what our descendants (if we manage to leave any) centuries or millennia from now will make of whatever artifacts we leave behind us now; looking at this film and how we try to understand the people of Chauvet Cave and what they were doing in there back in 30,000 BCE makes me wonder how future humans will understand us. Though, obviously, our digital technology means they’ll probably have even less to work with…

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