In 1994, three speleologists stumbled upon a remarkable find in the south of France. Sealed perfectly by a centuries-old rockslide and hidden entirely was a deep cave (known as the Chauvet Cave) that contained perhaps the greatest collection of prehistoric drawings. The cave was filled with ancient prints of wildlife as well as a large number of animal tracks and bones, some belonging to species that have long since become extinct. Most remarkable of all, everything within the cave was perfectly preserved through the many thousands of years and looks so fresh that upon their discovery, many scholars believed they must be fakes. Given unprecedented access, filmmaker Werner Herzog took his camera and a small film crew into the cave to document the wonder of this place and share it with the world.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is as visually compelling as a film could possibly be given that it was shot with a simple handheld camera. The world inside the Chauvet Cave is, quite honestly, beyond description. It is incredible, almost surreal, to look at the images Herzog shows us and realize that they date back as far as 35,000 years. These are the oldest known human drawings and yet they look like they could have been sketched yesterday. The magnificent detail these paintings display is mindboggling; many of the beasts (cave bears, ibex, and other animals) are drawn with eight legs instead of four but by sweeping a torch across the wall, the image gives the appearance of movement. And the complexity of the paintings (including some abstract works) is remarkable, providing a glimpse into the time period that previously had been unknown. I found myself wondering, at least in passing, about the lives of these artists, their people, and their culture.
Forgotten Dreams is a simple, straightforward film and that is both its strength and its weakness. Herzog allows the cave to tell its story. There is very little production value within the film; what you see within the cave is basically what you get for the movie. Herzog provides a few interviews with some of the lucky few who have worked inside the Chauvet Cave and assorted experts who provide a look into the lives of those who would have lived in the area around such a cave. But beyond these brief dalliances, what you get for 90 minutes is the cave, the cave, and some more of the cave. For the most part, this focus works well but I admit there were a few moments wherein my attention drifted. (My ADD was bound to kick in at some time.) When this happened, however, Herzog's ability to highlight the beauty and mystery of the cave's interior brought me right back to the action (as it were). And while it was completely Herzog's choice, the use of the small camera and the crew that didn't always have a place to duck out of shot serves to create the illusion that the audience is actually in the cave themselves instead of just watching the world unfold on a screen. All of this makes Forgotten Dreams an awesome example of my favorite type of documentary; that being the sort that sheds a bright light on a fascinating and previously little-known universe that is wholly deserving of more attention.