In 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams,' Werner Herzog Brings Prehistoric Paintings to Life

Deep inside a limestone cliff along the Ardèche River in Southern France, now sealed behind a steel door and guarded by the French government, is maybe the closest thing we have to a cultural time machine. The Chauvet Cave, stumbled into 17 years ago by three explorers, contains the earliest known examples of artwork by our species. The walls are covered with charcoal paintings of a fantastical menagerie of prehistoric beasts: thundering bison, woolly mammoths, battling rhinos, cave lions. Radiocarbon dating has put the age of the images at between 27,000 and 32,000 years, nearly twice as old as the paintings in the Lascaux caves that had previously held the distinction of being our most ancient artwork. Lascaux was open to tourists for 15 years before the toll of visitors' carbon emissions (i.e., breath) became evident on the paintings and led to them being sealed off in 1963. In contrast, access to Chauvet has been severely restricted since its discovery, preserving both the artwork and the gorgeous, glittering cavern that holds it.

Just a handful of visitors are allowed in each year, most of them the scientists who have photographed, mapped, and analyzed every centimeter of the narrow, winding 1,300-foot-long space. Last spring, that handful included German director Werner Herzog and a three-person film crew. The result is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a quiet and captivating documentary that raises (but, of course, can't answer) questions about history, art, and the nature of homo sapiens past and present.

Before going on, I should note that the film was made in 3D and Herzog has been insistent in interviews that people should see it that way—he wanted to give an immersive sense of the cave and the way the art emerges from its uneven walls. But as of this writing, it is showing in Knoxville only at Downtown West, which does not have a 3D theater. So all that is available is the two-dimensional transfer, and some of the footage has an odd, airy waver that is obviously the result of the technological translation. Still, the film is more than worth seeing in this form, for the chance to spend 90 minutes in a dark room with the Chauvet paintings at large-screen scale. (If it does well enough at Downtown West or snags a Best Picture nod next year, we can always hope Regal will bring it to a theater equipped to show it as intended.)

Anyway, Herzog seems like a natural fit for the subject. His movies, whether fiction or non-, have often probed at the boundaries of humanity: What separates us from other animals, what is our place in the world, what makes us "human"? As usual in his documentaries, Herzog is an engaging narrator, balancing a Teutonic flair for drama with a genuine sense of wonder. His films bristle with curiosity—it's hard to think of another director who seems so deeply interested in everything he sees and hears.

That means that we get long, luxurious pans and close-ups of dozens of images from the Chauvet walls. It also means that we meet some of the people engaged in studying the paintings and bringing their mysteries into the light. As fascinated as Herzog clearly is by the unknowable ancestors who left their astonishing, fluid marks in the cave, he is equally interested in the pony-tailed paleontologist who used to work as a circus unicyclist; the avuncular archaeologist who enthusiastically demonstrates ice age spear-throwing techniques; and the bug-eyed master perfumer who in his retirement has set his olfactory powers to work locating hidden subterranean chambers by sniffing the earth above.

Sometimes the movie strains to make its digressions pertinent. An epilogue set in a nearby steam-filled biosphere seems to be mostly an excuse for some striking images of albino alligators. But for the most part, Herzog ties all of his interviews and long stretches of cave-time together into an extended reverie on the power and persistence of human imagination.

The people who painted in Chauvet lived in a rough world with scarce resources, but they still produced art. Whether their paintings served religious purposes or some other social function we can't even guess at, they reflect some desire—and more than that, some need—to tell stories about the world, and in doing so, to make sense of it. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog uses the same paintings in reverse, as a way to start to imagine the stories of the people who made them. And, in doing so, to extend back through millennia the story of ourselves.