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The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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Review by Marc Glassman

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Feature documentary written, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s extraordinary new film captures the artistry of humanity during the Paleolithic Age. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is beautifully shot in 3-D, offering a worldwide audience the unique opportunity to view paintings created 32,000 years ago. In a career noted for quirky films, Herzog has created a controlled, wonderfully rendered look at our collective past.

Jean-Marie Chauvet and his colleagues Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillair made of one of the great discoveries in history back in 1994 in southern France. They found a cave that had been untouched since the Paleolithic Age, when rhinoceroses, horses, bears, owls and mammoths strode the earth.

Inside, they discovered extraordinary drawings–a veritable bestiary–of those animals and more. Drawn confidently but simply, with great attention to detail, the artists who created these rock paintings have provided stunning evidence of humanity’s spiritual and artistic connection to the world thousands of years earlier than had been previously thought possible.

Think of it: the famed Lascaux cave paintings, discovered in 1940, have been carbon dated back 17,000 years. The Chauvet site offers evidence of mankind’s ability to express itself artistically 15, 000 years earlier.

The French government is dealing with environmental issues caused by opening up Lescaux. A multitude of tourists–simply by breathing— has caused mold in the famous cave. So with Chauvet, the government has denied entrance to any visitors apart from scientists and academics.

Until now. Limited to a three-man crew and to four-hour working days, Herzog was able to capture wall images, particularly of horses, that might have inspired Picasso. The film sensitively captures crystalline stalagmites, textured walls covered with art and immaculately conserved bones of animals–particularly cave bears.

Through a series of interviews, Herzog engaged scientists and historians in philosophical discussions about the nature of art and humanity. He finds an academic willing to recreate the music of the period. In a stunning scene near the end of the film, Herzog uses an imaginative but valid historical score and 3-D images of the best paintings to create a great scene.

Not one to be held down, Herzog offers a strange coda to the film. Crocodiles–albino mutant ones–are apparently living close to Chauvet in a tropical environment created by a nuclear power plant. He wonders: what would they think of the cave and its drawings? And we wonder: is Herzog having us on?

The coda aside, Herzog has created a scientific doc for the ages. And a philosophical one, to boot.

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