The documentary form is very powerful because of its ability to impart ideas and facts to an audience, and because documentaries are sometimes presented with non-staged scenes they give the impression that everything in them is absolutely real. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, German directed Werner Herzog takes us inside of the Chauvet Cave to look at pre-historic cave drawings and paintings. These paintings, dating back into the long dark ages of history (however long ago you think that might be), clearly show that artistic pursuit is not a modern development but rather something deep inside men. We seek to understand the world around us and so we aim to conceptualize and deconstruct what we see via images. These cave painters, much like Mr. Herzog himself, used images to document, comment upon, and to understand the world around them.
Herzog’s camera floats around the walls of the cave, showing images that feel as though they might be simple line-drawings of the type you often see in the news papers. The figures feature broad, bold strokes that show the artist’s practice and skill. But this man was not simply sitting in his cave painting all day, the figures of the animals, and the depictions of them running, indicate that he had observed those creatures in person and up close. He draws animals such as rhinoceroses, horses, lions, boars, and bison. Some of the creatures seem like mixtures of different animals. Sometimes the drawings depict mixes of humans with animals, a minotaur of sorts. At other times Herzog turns his camera toward typical “talking head” commentators who offer their opinions and thoughts on the cave and various subjects relating to the cave. During one portion of the film Herzog ventures off to discuss other works of pre-historic art such as statues. At another point he interviews a man who demonstrates the proper throwing of spears. Another man, dressed in full caveman winter season regalia, shows us a flute made of bone and plays the Star Spangled Banner for us. I wonder where Herzog finds these men.
My wife and I sat watching this movie and pondered over what the painters must have been like. What did his tribe think of his artistic exploits? Was he an outcast, possibly thought to be insane? Or perhaps he was tasked with preserving a history of the tribe’s hunting conquests? The truth will never be known. It is known, however, that one of the painters in the cave had a crooked finger. This is known because he left red-inked handprints all over the interior of the cave walls. In one place he left an upward of something like fifty red handprints on a single rock. In this prints his crooked little finger can be see, jutting over to the side from some previous damage. In other places in the cave his handprints appear again and again, still inked in red.
The truth behind the Chauvet Cave will never be unearthed. No amount of digging or research will ever uncover all of its secrets, and Herzog is clearly disinterested in those things. His voice looms over the footage, commenting with a poetic narration that is both illuminating and infuriating. At times he seems to add commentary that adds to the story, at other times he is clearly talking out of his butt. Near the end of the film Herzog’s narrative meanders its way to a nuclear power plant and the water used to cool it. This water is heated in the process of cooling the plant and is then sent over to a reserve where a greenhouse is kept. This warmed water is used to preserve the tropical, artificial biosphere of the greenhouse. We are then shown some images of small albino alligators and Herzog’s narration tells us that these “mutant albino alligators” are the result of the nuclear power plant. He then muses that one day whether or not the mutant freaks (my words, not his) will one day wander into the Chauvet Cave and find the drawings.
“Are we,” he says, “the albino alligators of the past?”
The cave-painter depicted things solely from his imagination: minotaurs, animals mixed together, and other various combinations of creatures. At the end of this film I found myself wondering something similar: how much of this documentary came from reality, and how much of it came from Werner Herzog’s imagination?