They Dreamt: 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' & 'The Double Hour'

By Cooper, Rand Richards | Commonweal, June 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

They Dreamt: 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' & 'The Double Hour'


Cooper, Rand Richards, Commonweal


In 1994 three spelunkers in the south of France stumbled upon a huge find. Exploring a fissure in a limestone formation, they discovered a cave whose chambers contained dozens of wall paintings--paintings perfectly preserved, subsequent carbon dating revealed, for thirty millennia. The Chauvet cave's dreamlike depictions of horses, rhinos, woolly mammoths, and other prehistoric creatures constitute the oldest known examples of human pictorial art, and, as such, open a window on the prehistoric imagination. Perhaps most alluring is a recurring handprint, pressed on the rock in red paint and showing a slightly crooked little finger: the signature of the prehistoric artist. Fearful that opening the site to tourism would degrade the paintings, the French government put up a steel door to bar everyone but a few researchers. Last year, however, the German director Werner Herzog was allowed to take a small film crew inside. His footage, plus interviews with various experts, make up Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Herzog would seem the perfect man for such a project. In half a century of films, he has repeatedly explored the atavistic, the grandiose, the magical, and the strange. Abjuring any interest whatsoever in contemporary life, he has taken up Mayan creation myths, bloodthirsty conquistadores questing for El Dorado, vampires, aboriginal peoples, sages and seers, and outcasts. His dozen full-length documentaries have favored jungle, arctic, or desert settings. Herzog's is a cinema of the extreme, dedicated to excavating deep beneath the humdrum routine that civilization lays down atop our primitive, passionate, soulful selves.

Cave of Dreams is full of mesmerizing beauty. Not least are the weird crystal formations in the cave, a kind of surreal natural sculpture. The paintings themselves seem at once ancient and surprisingly modern--animal studies done in a smooth and assured line, replete with ample naturalistic detail, depth, and also, it seems, affection, suggesting a primordial outlook rooted as much in wonder and praise as in wariness and fear. Several are executed in a kind of multiple-image technique, as if to suggest motion. ("They are a form of proto-cinema," Herzog comments, dubiously.) It is impossible to see them and not be moved by the messages sent to us directly across the whole of human history by whoever owned that crooked-fingered hand.

Yet Cave of Dreams says less about humanity, or the owner of that hand, than it does about Herzog and his insistent need to uncover a primordial sense of the sacred. One realizes that this cave ratifies an essential idea in his Weltanschauung--that if we can only scoop away the entirety of civilization and reconnect with something primitive, we will rediscover the unspoiled and the authentic, both in the world and within ourselves. There is something distinctly prelapsarian in the vision that takes shape under the light of Herzog's awe. His religion is not at all Christian, but pagan. It does not deal in sin, merely celebration and ecstasy.

Herzog is hard-pressed to convey this ecstasy--though he certainly tries. Way too hard, in fact. I have always enjoyed his documentary voice-overs, his obscurely accented voice (Bavarian with British highlights) conveying a deadpan philosophical seriousness touched with drollery. There's no one better at waxing apocalyptic. Herzog's 2005 documentary Grizzly Man chronicled an eccentric American named Tim Treadwell who spent years living with bears in remote Alaska, and was eventually mauled to death for his efforts. "Treadwell saw nature as benign and harmonious," intoned the director with grim matter-of-factness, "whereas I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos, and murder." Jawohl!

Cave of Dreams shows conclusively that Herzog is better at dark grandiosity than the worshipful sublime. Determined that we share his awe, he subjects us to a drumbeat of relentless rhapsody.

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They Dreamt: 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' & 'The Double Hour'
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