PRINT April 2011


Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010, color HD video, 95 minutes. Production still. Foreground: Werner Herzog. Photo: Mark Valesella.

WHAT WOULD TRON LOOK LIKE in a carbon-dioxide-filled IMAX theater, with a digitized Jeff Bridges hovering above the steep vertebrae of seats buried in ancient snowfalls of calcified crystal? The question is never asked outright in Werner Herzog’s foray into 3-D moviemaking, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). But such petrified futures come to mind the moment viewers put on oversize, battery-powered glasses and then, in the opening scene, find themselves—instead of having to dodge a glowing Frisbee or the flailing limbs of the Kraken—greeted by an idyllic vineyard whose protruding tree branches and chicken wire seem the hoary stuff of nineteenth-century stereoscope cards. (Not too long thereafter, student archaeologist Julien Monney, a former circus juggler and unicyclist—also featured sitting at his computer in living 3-D—attempts to describe the psyche of Paleolithic human beings.) The inherent laughability of technology, and of any sense of human “advancement,” seems very much on Herzog’s mind in his latest film, if latently. Anachronism is, he implies, the repressed calling card for all today’s tomorrows, in cinema as in life.

Of course, such framing belies the proximate cause of Herzog’s ambition here, which is to impress on audiences the staggering significance of the Chauvet Cave in southern France. Before its discovery roughly seventeen years ago, this cavern had been totally sealed for more than twenty thousand years, perfectly preserving an array of paintings, artifacts, and animal remains nearly twice the age of anything found in Lascaux some 150 miles away. To make his film, Herzog obtained permission from the French ministry of culture to descend into the cave with a small team for short periods, first with crude cameras and then with more sophisticated equipment. Cave of Forgotten Dreams consists of footage from these expeditions interspersed among interviews with those archaeologists who treat the site as a forensic scene of our collective prehistory—seeking, in the words of one scientist, “to create stories about what could have happened.”

Stories there are, and not all in the distant past, since Cave’s modeling on the multifarious talking-head perspectives of a television documentary offers a quirky profile of the individuals who would choose to spend their time around Chauvet. For instance, Dominique Baffier, curator of the cave (what a title), begins by taking Herzog on a tour of the setting, explaining that a single man was, in fact, responsible for much of what we see. (This, she observes, can be discerned based on a handprint that appears repeatedly on the walls and features the same crooked little finger.) But this striking observation is soon complemented by the testimony of Wulf Hein, an “experimental archaeologist” who appears wearing leather and reindeer fur—typical Cro-Magnon attire back when the surrounding valley was covered by glaciers. (In one Planet of the Apes moment, Hein plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a flute of vulture bones found in a cave in southern Germany; apparently, the pentatonic scale predates Pythagoras by no small measure.) Finally, in a nearly Felliniesque turn, Maurice Maurin, master perfumer, displays his technique of scouring the hillsides for caves, sniffing the leafy ground for any dull odors of the past rising from the limestone confines below.

Yet all these odd players serve Herzog’s mission, particularly since they are, one after another, clearly humbled by the presence of the cave itself. In fact, their words function as recitatives for the director’s wordless aria on the paintings, with the film’s air of comedy subtly disarming his audience. For while Herzog flirts with cliché throughout (at one point, his expedition pauses to “listen to the cave”), he also meditates on the idea of art itself and the role its imagery plays for modern people. Among the more powerful moments occurs when one subject, Jean-Michel Geneste, proposes that humans eons ago did not perceive any distinction between themselves and the animals around them and, moreover, discerned no division between the physical and spiritual worlds. (Hence, in the cave one encounters depictions of hybrid beings, and skulls arranged as if for ceremony.) Any bemusement at Geneste’s words—if only in knee-jerk resistance to the Hegelian “Spirit” lurking just past the next glacier—begins to fade when Herzog finally says nothing and instead trains his cameras at length on the still-vivid contours of lions, panthers, and bears. With the artists’ renderings flowing over natural protuberances of limestone in light and shadow, the walls of the cave itself obtain the dimensions of flesh, even while conveying an ecosystem—and a way of being—utterly gone. Confronted by this time-bending vanitas, audiences are left to ask whether the title’s forgotten dreams are those of the people who made the paintings or, as likely, their own.

In this regard, it’s interesting that Herzog has seemed infatuated lately with the empty eyes of lizards—first in his 2009 remake of Bad Lieutenant, where Nicolas Cage’s baleful cop was bound to stand for minutes on end beside a hallucinated iguana, and now in Cave, where a postscript shows leathery albino crocodiles thriving in a biosphere warmed by waters from a nuclear power plant not far from Chauvet. “Are we today, possibly, the crocodiles who look back into an abyss of time?” Herzog wonders aloud, evincing the comic sensibility of fables, as if it were not technology alone at risk of being a passing fad.

Tim Griffin is Artforum Editor at Large.