Cave of Forgotten Dreams: across the abyss of time

What constitutes humanness?
– Werner Herzog, questioning archaeologists in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When he was 12, Werner Herzog was captivated by a book on prehistoric art displayed in a book shop window.  On the cover was a picture of a horse from the Lascaux cave.  He knew he had to have that book, and spent a long summer working to earn the money for it:

I bought the book, and since then a kind of awe has been inside me.

That sense of awe permeates Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s new documentary shot in 3-D during rare, privileged access to the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche and shown last night at FACT followed by a Q&A with the director via satellite link.  It is awe at the breathtaking quality and beauty of the prehistoric wall paintings discovered in the cave at Chauvet , and awe, too, at the ‘abyss of time’ (Herzog’s words) that separates us from the humans who created them 32,000 years ago.  They were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in groups of 20-25, sharing the terrain with Neanderthals – and animals, countless numbers of them. There was no agriculture, no metal-working. But they had fire, music, jewellery and art. They had imagination.

The cave at Chauvet was only discovered in 1994 when a trio of speleologists broke through a tiny opening and discovered chamber after chamber of spectacular prehistoric art, including images of many extinct species of Ice Age animals. The cave contains the oldest paintings ever discovered anywhere in the world, almost perfectly preserved following a rock fall which sealed off the entrance some 25,000 years ago.

It’s like a time capsule. It was completely sealed for more than 25,000 years. You’re stepping in and there are fresh tracks of cave bears and skulls and even a footprint of a perhaps eight-year-old boy next to the footprints of a wolf. This is sounding into the deepest recesses of the time when the human soul awakened.

Ordinary mortals will never see any of this, since entry to the cave is highly restricted, even to scientists and archaeologists.  Herzog received special permission from the French minister of culture to film inside the cave, and had heavy restrictions imposed while filming there. He was allowed to have only three people with him in the cave: the cinematographer, a sound recorder, and an assistant. Herzog himself worked the lights. The crew was only allowed to use battery powered equipment and used only lights which did not give off any excess heat. The 3-D cameras were custom-built for the production, and were often assembled inside the cave itself. Herzog was allowed six shooting days of four hours each inside the cave. The crew could not touch any part of the wall or floor of the cave, and were confined to a 2-foot-wide walkway.

I had to be professional. I had to do my duty. Only when we were leaving, I let the crew walk out and I stayed behind. For a few minutes, I was all alone there. It’s so silent you hear your own heartbeat. It’s very hard to describe. I can only say it’s a sense of awe.

Before filming Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog was sceptical of the artistic value of 3-D filmmaking. He retains that scepticism, but decided to use 3-D in his film to help capture the intentions of the painters, who incorporated the contours of the cave walls into their art:

When I saw the cave for the first time, it was clear this was the only choice. It was imperative. I was under the impression they are fairly flat walls with panels of images but the artists took advantage of the three-dimensional drama of the cave: a bulge in the wall would be the neck of a bison charging you, a niche would be used for a horse just peeking out cautiously, things like this.

Absolutely.  There is no sense of this being a gimmick.  There are no zooming, in-your-face special effects.  Only a perfect realisation of the sense of being there and seeing the art with its texture, surfaces and planes in a way that no 2-D representation can convey.

Herzog’s film offers a breathtaking and deeply moving record of the experience of entering the cave and exploring its three main chambers, which extend for 1,700 feet and contain 416 paintings.  But it isn’t, as some reviews have suggested, the only film of  the cave paintings to be made by a cultural commentator.  John Berger was one of the first people to visit Chauvet, and in 2002 he made a film, Dans le silence de la Grotte Chauvet, for ARTE France about the experience.  The text of his narration was published in his collection, Here Is Where We Meet, and, in edited form by The Guardian.  Berger also wrote about Chauvet in The Shape of a Pocket.  In both pieces, Berger addresses the mystery of this art and the people who created it:

The Cro-Magnon reply … to the first and perennial human question, “Where are we?” was different from ours. The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals. At the same time, they were distinct from animals. They could make fire and therefore had light in the darkness. They could kill at a distance. They fashioned many things with their hands. They made tents for themselves, held up by mammoth bones. They spoke. They could count. They could carry water. They died differently.


The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today’s culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.


The time separating us from these artists is at least twelve times longer than the time separating us from the pre-Socratic philosophers.  What makes their age astounding is the sensitivity of the perception they reveal.  The thrust of an animal’s neck or the set of its mouth or the energy of its haunches were observed an recreated with a nervousness and control comparable to what we find in the works of a Fra Lippo Lippi, a Velazquez or a Brancusi.  Apparently art did not begin clumsily.  The eyes and hands of the first painters were as fine as any that came later.  There was a grace from the start.  This is the mystery, isn’t it?

Interpretations of the meaning of such paintings, the circumstances in which they were painted and whether the artists were male or female, have varied widely.  Some have seen them as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.  Others have argued that that the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans who would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with the intent of drawing power out of the animal representations.  As as Chauvet is concerned, scientists speaking in the film to Herzog suggest that people did not live permanently in the cave but returned again and again, participating in some kind of spiritual pilgrimage.

Julian Bell wrote in his history of art, Mirror of the World:

Across this giddying, hard-to-conceive distance of 30,000 years, the assurance of Chauvet’s art leaps out with a power to seize the imagination….How these painters were seeing, how they were feeling their way into the energies of beasts!  As Picasso commented, visiting Lascaux in 1940, ‘We have learnt nothing’. […]

From its beginnings, European cave painting seemingly involved highly naturalistic effects. But that does not explain why people should have dragged themselves away from the sunlight down cold, dark and hazardous passages to practise it – often returning millennium after millennium to the same site. … On many cave walls the animal-drawing seems less an act of creating visible images than of people returning to add a trace to a site made significant by previous markings, which may be why some of them have become an unreadable tangle of superimposed scrawls. And yet… we see the habitual imagery of horses, bison and deer arrayed in more or less orderly formations. … Lit by lamps and torches, their pictures would have presented a flickering, unreachable spectacle to whoever peered up – a Palaeolithic equivalent to our present-day experiences of the cinema screen or the fairground ghost train.  Like these, the cave was a zone at a remove from everyday conditions. Those who entered it lived chiefly by hunting and hence on the move, following animals in their migrations. The major caves are mostly in valleys branching off migration routes, and people may have converged on them seasonally. Certain individuals must have led the way. In other words, the Old Stone Age had its specialists in art, if not its full-time artists.
But to return to the question: why did specialists take their art inside the caves? Answers have changed along with intellectual fashion, and some have been discarded. It was once thought that this was ‘hunting magic’, but the animals the hunters drew and the animals they ate prove not to match. One more recent line of research may have a bearing on whatever rituals the caves once witnessed. Their walls, like other Palaeolithic painted rock faces, often show isolated dot patterns, grids, zigzags and spirals. These look like shapes the brain’s visual system sends up, dancing before the eyes, when someone is in a trance through fasting or drugs. Starving the outward vision, therefore, was likely part of the intention when people took their leave of sunlight. Darkness encourages dreaming. In the torch’s flicker, living shapes would loom up, and it was all one whether they stemmed from the mind or the rock. Imagination was nature, and vice versa.

As one paleontologist, interviewed in the film remarks, these people were probably far more ‘permeable’ than we are today – their sense of being shifting between the spiritual and the physical, between their human identity and those of the animals around them.

As with other groups of cave paintings, there are no representations of  humans at Chauvet – apart from the image of a woman’s pudenda superimposed with that of a bison, painted on a limestone pendant projecting from the roof of the cave.  This shares physical characteristics with the Venus figurines found at sites across Europe, such as the Venus of Willendorf (below), that date from the same period.

The rock fall so perfectly preserved the cave at Chauvet that, quite apart from the paintings, there are other wonders.  Herzog’s camera showed us the the paw prints of cave bears, scratch marks they left and the depressions probably left as they hibernated in the cave.  There are over 150 bear skeletons, while at the entrance to the largest chamber there is a stone with the skull of a bear on its top surface. Some suggest that it must have been placed there deliberately and signify a form of relationship between man and cave-bear.

Fragments of carbon from the torches that lit the cave 30,000 years ao enabled accurate radiocarbon datings, and there are smoke stains from the torches and charcoal smears on the walls where torches were scraped to clean and re-ignite them. Recently footprints of a young boy were discovered alongside those of a wolf, possibly separated by thousands of years.  The boys prints are the oldest footprints of Homo sapiens sapiens discovered anywhere in the world.

Chauvet is one of the greatest and most sensational discoveries in human culture and, of course, what is so fascinating is that it was preserved as a perfect time capsule for 20,000 years. The quality of the art, which is from a time so far, so deep back in history, is stunning. It’s not that we have what people might call the primitive beginnings of painting and art. It is right there as if it had burst on the scene fully accomplished. That is the astonishing thing, to understand that the modern human soul somehow awakened. It is not a long slumber and a slow, slow, slow awakening. I think it was a fairly sudden awakening. But when I say “sudden” it may have gone over 20,000 years or so. Time does not factor in when you go back into such deep prehistory.
– Werner Herzog

As always Herzog seems unerringly to find characters who are slightly (or totally) eccentric.  Among the experts he consults in the film is an archeologist who used to be a circus juggler (only Herzog!), another who makes a 3D spectacle of himself demonstrating how to launch a spear with a paleolithic spear thrower (the bow and arrow had yet to be invented).  Then there is the experimental anthropologist who wears reindeer skins and plays The Star-Spangled Banner on his vulture bone flute, and the perfumer who uses his nose to sniff out caves.

There’s a typically Herzogian off-the-wall postscript, in which he tells of discovering just up-river from the Chauvet cave a nuclear power plant which supplies super-heated water to a nearby biodome.  There he found several radioactive albino crocodiles. Herzog muses on what they might make of the cave paintings. It’s quite mad, but somehow thought-provoking at the same time.

It’s a brilliant film.  I thought that Herzog only put a foot wrong once – when Jean Clottes, the lead archaeologist at Chauvet, turns to the film-makers and says, ‘Silence please. Please listen to the cave. You may even be able to hear your heartbeat’.  Instead of doing that, Herzog, perhaps mindful of the audience in America, his adopted country, adds music and a heartbeat.

The Q & A afterwards was hosted by The Observer’s Jason Solomons and was broadcast live across the country from Brixton’s Ritzy cinema. The questions – especially those from members of the audience seemed to reveal Herzog’s personality, philosophy and intentions more than any other interview with him I’ve seen.  Asked about his documentaries, Herzog argued that he was not interested in facts: while aspects of those films are ‘factually not correct’, they ‘touch a deeper truth’.

Herzog insisted that ‘the mystery that surrounds those paintings will be there forever’. Instead of attempting to offer theories about their origin, he was instead trying to evoke a spiritual response within his audience, encouraging them feel a similar sense of wonder to that experienced by those fortunate few allowed in the cave.

Herzog told us that he faced intense competition to shoot in the cave at  Chauvet.  He outflanked the opposition by offering to do it for a nominal one euro fee and donating the finished film to the French Ministry of Culture to use for  educational purposes (it will be available free to all French schools).

For me, one of the delights of Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Herzog’s narration: I could listen to Werner Herzog’s precise Bavarian accent for hours!  It seems I’m not alone.  Herzog revealed that he had just added his voice to a character in an episode of the Simpsons, while recently he was also asked to provide the narration for a 15 minute short, Plastic Bag, directed by Ramin Bahrani.  It can be seen on YouTube and is worth watching for its environmental message and its resonant last words: ‘I wish you had created me so I could die’.



2 thoughts on “Cave of Forgotten Dreams: across the abyss of time

  1. The cave paintings are the dream time – we can’t go back there. But yes we can, in the imagination. Although not a jot on the real thing, such great thanks to all those who have returned from the caves with film, photos and first hand impressions of what they have seen, it has enriched the lives of so many of us, we who are now forever distanced from the dream time of humanity’s first bloom.

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