A Beautiful Connection to the Past

Thirty-two thousand years is certainly a difficult length of time for us short-lived creatures to grasp. A central event that helps many people order time, the life of Jesus, only happened just over 2,000 years ago. Yet in his own inimitable way, Werner Herzog connects us with fellow human beings who lived 32,000 years ago in his most recent documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Though it is an informative look back to a distant time and place, it is simultaneously a timeless, contemplative reflection on the nature of human identity.

In 1994, three independent explorers discovered a cave in southern France, the entrance of which had collapsed some 20,000 years ago keeping both it and its hidden treasures preserved all along. The cave houses some of the oldest, if not the oldest, works of art known to humanity. The prehistoric drawings in Chauvet Cave feature images of bison, mammoths, lions, deer, rhinoceroses, and even a bison/woman hybrid. The cave walls also feature (seemingly) sporadic hand prints throughout its various rooms by an artist with a crooked little finger. Alongside these images lie the bones of various now-extinct animals and beautiful, glittering calcium deposits. Scientists suspect that early humans did not live in the cave but perhaps used it for painting, ritual, or religious purposes. Long-preserved footprints of both humans and animals weave their way throughout the cave. Again, through various dating practices (some of which are under debate), scientists date these drawings to as far back as 32,000 years ago with some of the drawings taking place over 5,000 years apart.

The multiple images of the rhinoceros on the right suggest an attempt to capture movement.

The first striking feature of the Chauvet Cave drawings are their beauty and symmetry, both of which stand in stark contrast to any sort of evolutionary notion of art history. These artists may have been prehistoric, but they were not simple-minded. Second, is the reality that these artists attempted to capture motion in their drawings. An animal with six legs or multiple heads is not some extinct species with which they would have been familiar, but rather an animal running. Herzog refers to these images a proto-cinema. Whatever you call them, they shed light on the intelligence, conscience, experience, and shared meaning among some of our most distant ancestors.

Herzog's (left) documentaries are not immune to his idiosyncracies. Here he is displaying a prehistoric flute alongside an experimental archaeologist.

In conversation with geologists, archaeologists, scientists, and the like, Herzog speculates on what life might have been like for these artists. While certain geographical realities like a glacier-covered Europe (in some places as thick as 2,500 meters) give us an idea of their day to day existence, Herzog is more concerned with the unknowable and hence dwells in a creative agnosticism. These dreams are forgotten after all. What these images do point towards is prehistoric humans with, perhaps, a better understanding of the interconnectedness of all of life than we more evolved iterations of the species could ever have.

In conversation with the documentarian, Jean Clottes, one of the earliest scientists to study the caves, tells Herzog that he feels like homo-sapien (the man who knows) is a far too inadequate description of the human species. Rather, he argues, we might best be described as homo-spiritualis (you define it). He also argues that two things are apparent from his studies of the Chauvet Cave drawings: these prehistoric humans understood fluidity and permeability. That is, distinctions like male and female or person and animal or human and nature or even this world and the spiritual did not matter. Humans could “communicate” with the “other side” and with nature. Hybrid artworks like the partial bison/woman figure at Chauvet point to a blurring of the lines…or a fluidity of life that escapes most of us today. Of course, the spiritual and/or religious assumptions about that time can run in countless directions.

This is the beauty of Herzog’s film…as it is with most of his documentaries…which feels more like a lingering question(s) rather than definitive statements (e.g. Michael Moore‘s documentaries). In often humorous and always sincere ways, Herzog makes a handful of observations and poses a series of questions that inevitably beg more. While he is of course concerned with the Chauvet Cave drawings (and other prehistoric artifacts in surrounding areas), he is pointing his camera at nothing less that the question of what it means to be human, a task for which few filmmakers are as well equipped to undertake as Herzog.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is as beautiful a film as the drawings on which Herzog focuses. It benefits from cinematography that is as moving and haunting as the score that accompanies it. My only regret is that I missed it in 3D, a version of the film that would have no doubt lent both a sense of size and texture to the cave drawings that I missed out on by watching it at home. The medium of Herzog’s art, film, also opens up questions about the permanence of his work and, by extension, our role as observers in relation to the drawings. With a film as moving as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one hopes that it has as permanent a place in the history of humanity as the drawings that grace its frames.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (90 mins.) is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.