Thursday, 8 March 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s (Grizzly ManCave of Forgotten Dreams takes the viewer on an incredible journey through the Chauvet cave in Southern France which when discovered in 1994 was found to contain the oldest cave paintings in the world. At 32,000 years old they were more than twice the age of the previous oldest human art ever to have been discovered. To put the painting’s age into perspective, they are more than sixteen times older than Jesus. They are 26,000 years older than many Creationists claim the earth is and they were painted at a time when the artists lived along side Neanderthals, lions and mammoths in Southern France. 

Since the cave’s discovery, every effort has been made to preserve the paintings and the cave itself and no film crew has ever been allowed access before and they are unlikely to gain access again. Herzog takes us through the dark and cavernous cave, past bear skulls that are so old that they have calcified and past huge stalagmites which although take thousands of years to grow, were not present when the paintings were created. The crew and scientists who accompany them must stick to a two food wide metal path that has been created in order to protect the cave floor. A floor which features the longest known cave bear tracks, carbon fragments from 28,000 year old torches and the tracks of a wolf and a human child that walks side by side. It is not known if the tracks are that of hunter and prey or laid down thousands of years apart.

When the Herzog’s light first flickers towards the cave paintings it appears as though they are fresh and could have been drawn that very day. They are in the most remarkable condition and when first discovered were thought to be a hoax. It was not until the scientists looked closer to discover calcification over some of the paintings that they were sure they were dealing with the genuine article. There are many painting in the cave, including those depicting lions, bears, hand prints, horses, mammoths, bison and the only example in Europe of a panther. There are many examples of paintings overlapping each other. In one case, the painting underneath is five thousand years older than the one which partially covers it.

The film is remarkable and incredibly interesting. It is amazing that the paintings have remained undiscovered for over thirty millennia and are still in such great condition. The film’s narration by Herzog in his Bavarian monotone adds to the sense of wonder that the pictures create. He invokes the most wonderful vocabulary to describe what we see as the dreams of long forgotten people and ponders their connection to us. As well as footage from inside the cave there are also interviews with scientists and archaeologists who are working on the site and these provide added insight.

Despite the wonder on screen and the film’s relatively short run time of 85 minutes I did think that perhaps it was more suited to a television rather than theatrical documentary. It also sometimes got a bit dull. While the paintings are undoubtedly incredible, by the time you’ve seen them for the fifth time it does get a bit samey. This doesn’t detract from what is an incredible documentary from the visionary Herzog and one that everyone should see, if only to get a sense of ones place in history and to understand where and who we come from.    


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