The one thing that strikes me as off about Werner Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is the title.
As we see, these dreams have not been forgotten. They've lived on, surfacing at other times and in other places, long after the cave vanished beneath a rock slide some 20,000 years ago, to be rediscovered only in 1994.
Maybe "Dreams of the Forgotten Cave" is the more accurate title, even if it sounds a bit too much like an Indiana Jones movie crossed with an H.P. Lovecraft story.
The cave is Chauvet Cave, located in southern France and site of the earliest known cave paintings, some of which are between 30,000 and 33,000 years old. As Herzog tells us, that makes them twice as old as any other known prehistoric paintings.
The cave of Altamira in northern Spain — subject of an admiring Steely Dan song, "The Caves of Altamira" — contains paintings generally thought to be about 15,000 years old, although some researchers argue for some of them being as old as the oldest Chauvet paintings.
That, however, is an archaeological dispute for another day, and one that probably doesn't interest Herzog in the slightest.
Given special permission to film in Chauvet — under severe restrictions — Herzog descended with a small crew and advanced 3-D cameras. Confined to a narrow walkway and limited to just four hours a day during six shooting days, Herzog and company nevertheless emerged with remarkable footage that Herzog has fashioned into an equally remarkable film, enhanced by Ernst Reijseger's melancholy score.
The paintings are astonishing for their age. These prehistoric artists capture horses, bison, lions, bears, mammoths and woolly rhinos in unmistakable detail. They simulate the movement of fleeing beasts by giving them extra legs.
More remarkable still, they use the irregularities and contours of the cave walls as part of their paintings. In the torchlight, Herzog notes, these creatures must have seemed to come to life.
For once, the 3-D is worth it. Viewing "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in the standard two dimensions, you miss the three-dimensional tricks that play out over Chauvet's walls, and which Herzog recreates. Leave it to a 3-D skeptic such as Herzog to finally put the technology to good use. I wouldn't suggest purchasing a 3-D TV and Blu-ray player just for this film, but if you have them already, this is a film you must own, if for no other reason than to show off your home theater.
Perhaps the cavemen who left these paintings were showing off, too.
There is no evidence anyone ever inhabited Chauvet, so its purpose was likely ceremonial. Maybe it was the world's first art gallery, or maybe it was just the world's first graffiti.
In evolutionary psychology, there's a hypothesis that art, like the peacock's tail, is something used to attract a mate. Maybe we're looking at the works of prehistoric Don Juans trying to impress a girl.
The normally fatalistic Herzog (see his "Encounters at the End of the World") seems drawn to these artists as kindred spirits. They, too, document the world around them and seek meaning in symbols. The closest thing we find to a depiction of a human among the horses and rhinos is symbolic — part-woman/part-bison. It's the earliest blending of human and beast, starting a tradition that goes through Egyptian hieroglyphs and continues today in the pages of Batman and Spider-Man comic books.
Who were these Ice Age people who left behind only their art and their hand prints? What were their hopes and fears? In the end, they seem very much like us, and their dreams are our dreams.
In his career-long search for what he calls "ecstatic truth," a truth deeper than mere facts, Herzog has never come closer.
Thankfully, he takes us along for the ride.