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In 1994, a group of scientists discovered a cave in Southern France perfectly preserved for over 20,000 years and containing the earliest known human paintings. Knowing the cultural significance that the Chauvet Cave holds, the French government immediately cut-off all access to it, save a few archaeologists and paleontologists. But documentary filmmaker, Werner Herzog, has been given limited access, and now we get to go inside examining beautiful artwork created by our ancient ancestors around 32,000 years ago. He asks questions to various historians and scientists about what these humans would have been like and trying to build a bridge from the past to the present. Written by
In a forbidden recess of the cave, there's a footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart? We'll never know.
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Don't miss auteur Werner Herzog's memorable documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the French Chauvet Cave. It contains the earliest extant art work of humanity from over 30,000 years ago. Paleolithic renderings of animals such as horses, lions, and cave bears, some in motion as if early filmmaking ("a form of proto-cinema," Herzog says) are rendered so lifelike by the film that I'm satisfied to have gotten as close as is possible without damaging the environment.
With special permission from the culture ministry and only a few hours per day, Herzog takes a non-professional 3-D camera and a few scientists and crew into the cave, which was sealed by a landslide some 20, 000 years ago and therefore in pristine shape. So careful are the French that they plan to construct a theme park with exact reproduction of the Cave in order to satisfy the public's natural interest in seeing the drawings but yet keep them from spoiling the treasures with their breaths.
3-D aids appreciation of the curvatures of the caves and the rich dimensions of the drawings, about 400 of them, and the cave-bear fossils and scratches. Ernst Reijseger's understated orchestration complements the lyrical and mysterious world that Herzog's voice cradles.
Because no one is allowed to walk outside the small walkway and few humans will ever enter, an eerie Egyptian tomb-like atmosphere pervades, captured by Herzog's pensive, wistful ruminations about mankind. For the director of such eccentric films as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, both about mysteriously powerful humans, and similarly the documentary Grizzly, about an odd bear lover, this film is evidence of the filmmaker's wide-ranging zest for the inscrutable spiritual roots of secular achievement and madness.
Of course, there's the romantic take by the French scientists and narrator Herzog, who all describe hearing the voices of these ancient homo-sapien artists echo in the chambers. Herzog's inscrutable post script, perfectly in character with this out-there director involves nuclear reactors, warm water, and thriving alligators. When you figure out his meaning of the doppelganging albino alligators, write me with your answer, for I'm still trying to figure it out.
Meanwhile, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a superior documentary with the right combination of visual clarity and authorial insight to make everlastingly memorable the forgotten dreams of our ancestors and ourselves.
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