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It is hard to imagine that a documentary devoted to one single cave and lasting an hour and a half can be so gripping and immersive, but this is precisely how Werner Herzog's film works. Though the filming crew was not that big and only four members of the team, including Herzog himself, were allowed to enter the cave, the result turned out to be spectacular and visually mesmerizing: "The Chauvet cave is a lost cathedral, and Herzog's film responds with subdued passion to its profound mystery," writes the Guardian reviwer Peter Bradshaw (Bradshaw). The film is not only beautifully shot, its main advantage is that it is attempting to tell a story which is not just a story of one cave, but rather of the innate human striving for continuity, connection and communication.
Herzog is the voice behind the screen, soothing, hasteless, but also inspired and enthusiastic that takes the viewer on a fascinating journey. The trip starts at a small, cozy vineyard nearby the cave, goes on to a majestic natural stone bridge Pont d'Arc and proceeds to the vault door in the wall. The door safely guards the secrets of the cave: its treasures are so precious and the climate inside so delicate, so easy to compromise that it is closed to visitors. Herzog was given an unprecedented endorsement by the French Ministry of Culture to film in the cave. Herzog's film is our only chance to see the unique 32,000 year old cave paintings, the oldest known. From the vault door, where the crew receives sterile boots and safety instructions, the visitors proceed to the original entrance to the cave which is now blocked and the panel with big red dots. These dots are a signature of a particular Paeolithic artist who had a very special individual feature - a crooked little finger. This tiny but striking fact shatters the anonymity of the distant past: it helps us remember that the ancient masterpieces were created by individuals and not some collective force. In the cave of a skull there are no paintings as it was originally lit by the daylight, but further on into the darkness the filming crew witnesses spectacular pictures looking so fresh that doubts arise if they are authentic. The white horse looks like it was done yesterday. But, of course, the calcites that have grown on the drawings are proof enough that they are no forgery. The viewer is treated to a rich variety of animals, including a panther (the only one in the world), and even insects. The New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis poetically describes the sight: "amid gleaming stalactites and stalagmites and a carpet of animal bones, beautiful images of horses gallop on walls alongside bison and a ghostly menagerie of cave lions, cave bears and woolly mammoths" (Dargis). Apart from animals, the depictions might also represent volcano eruptions which can be seen drawn in white under the darker lines (Callaway). Finally, the audience finds itself in the lower chamber with amazingly realistic and impressive depictions of lions. All the pictures are shown in great detail and at a pace which allows the viewer to take in their innate gracefulness and genius lapidarity. But, as Julien Monney, a French archaeologist, underlines, to understand the cave better, you must go outside ("Cave Of Forgotten Dreams"). At the end of the film, the camera takes a flight over the spectacular landscape around. The surprising epilogue is a visit to the greenhouses of the local nuclear power plant which have become home to multiple crocodiles, many albino crocodiles among them. The lands which were cold and snow-covered 32,000 years ago are now hosting crocodiles. "Nothing is real, nothing is certain," concludes Herzog ("Cave Of Forgotten Dreams"), bringing the audience's attention to the philosophical dimension of the film.
The irresistible charm of Herzog's documentary lies in the fact that it is not a simple collage of footage and interviews with archaeologists, but rather an integral story told in a rich and imaginative language. "Story" is the central concept of the film. Julien Monney tells Herzog in an interview that when putting together the cutting-edge 3-D model of the cave the scientists are working to create a new understanding of the cave - through precision, through scientific methods, but it is not, as he thinks the main goal: the main goal is to create a story about what could have happened in that cave in the past ("Cave Of Forgotten Dreams"). Human beings have always lived in a universe made of stories, tried to explain the world around through narratives. Pictures in the Chauvet cave are a story of what it meant to look at the world through the eyes of the Paleolithic man. This story is not only 3-D in terms of its technical realization, it is also multidimensional in the way it is intertwining visual details with the music of the ancient pentatonic flute played by experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein and with the rich palette of scents of the cave discovered by Maurice Maurin, Master Perfumer. The viewers can easily imagine themselves wearing deer skins and throwing a spear to kill a horse or a bison. And all the time we are being intrigued by the stories the film is telling and the questions it keeps asking. Who was that painter with the crooked little finger and why did he create his masterpieces? What was the eight-year-old boy doing in the cave and was the wolf stalking or accompanying him? What does the metamorphic figure of a bison woman, found in the chamber with lions, symbolize? In Herzog's documentary the distant past comes alive, indeed.
The story told by Herzog is surprisingly modern. The famous director is looking for connections with the present day and finds them in parallels with the music of Wagner and works of German Romanticist painters, the cinematograph and the shadow play show. Herzog succeeds in showing that the paintings in the Chauvet Cave are a message from the past to the future. As Simon McBurney, The Guardian reviewer, puts it, "the German master Werner Herzog has travelled back in time for what might be his most moving film" (McBurney). The world of the Paleolithic man was completely different from ours because it was based on two concepts we are not really accustomed to: fluidity and permeability. But as we belong to the same species - Homo Spiritualis - we can picture that world thanks to this greatest gift of ours - imagination.
Bradshaw, Peter. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Review." The Guardian, 24 Mar. 2011, www.theguardian.com/film/2011/mar/24/cave-of-forgotten-dreams-review.
Callaway, Ewen. "'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' May Hold Earliest Painting of Volcanic Eruption." Nature, 19 Jan. 2016, doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19177.
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams - History Channel Documentaries, History Documetary, 16 Dec. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5Pcnz5iYek&feature=youtu.be.
Dargis, Manohla. "Herzog Finds His Inner Cave Man." New York Times, 28 Apr. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/04/29/movies/werner-herzogs-cave-of-forgotten-dreams-review.html.
McBurney, Simon. "Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams: the Real Art Underground." The Guardian, 17 Mar. 2011, www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/17/werner-herzog-cave-of-forgotten-dreams.
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