Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a new documentary by Werner Herzog, is a striking work of art, framing another that is wholly extraordinary. In 1994 three experienced French speleologists, exploring the limestone gorges of the river Ardèche, crawled their way into a large cave system in which Paleolithic imagery swung into view. Jean-Marie Chauvet, the team’s leader, has described how they were immediately awestruck by the “remarkable realism” and “aesthetic mastery”* of the countless animal depictions that sprang out as their torch beams roved the cave walls. But conscious that cave paintings such as those at Lascaux, discovered in 1940, had soon become infested with the mold carried on visitors’ breaths, Chauvet and his colleagues notified the regional authorities, and within a month, before the public announcement of the discovery, a steel door was installed to seal off the opening in the rock face. Only the scientifically qualified might pass inside, and those in very small numbers, confining their footsteps to a narrow raised walkway.
Illustrated surveys were published, edited first by Chauvet (after whom the cave got named), and then by Jean Clottes, the presiding archaeologist. Meanwhile lay inquirers such as Judith Thurman, writing about Chauvet for The New Yorker in 2008, had no choice but to report on the paintings at second hand. But Thurman’s piece fired up Erik Nelson, a Los Angeles producer who, having already worked on two documentaries with Herzog, saw fresh cinematic potential here for the veteran Bavarian-born auteur; and Nelson’s company had the smart idea of presenting Herzog to Frédéric Mitterrand, France’s new minister of culture. In Mitterrand (nephew to the late president) they encountered a dedicated cinephile who unhesitatingly made it his business to beat a path open for the filmmakers. For four days, then, during the spring of last year, Herzog and a minimal, three-man crew were granted access to that subterranean walkway.
The project had a powerful hook line. Radiocarbon analyses indicate that charcoal used by painters at Chauvet came from pines that were alive some 32,000 years ago. It follows that these are easily the world’s oldest known paintings. Long before the eighteenth millennium BCE—the date assigned to Lascaux—a rock fall had closed off Chauvet’s original entrance, stopping all further incursion into the cave and preserving the imagery within in pristine condition. The only figurative artifacts that we know to predate Chauvet are some slightly older carvings in stone and mammoth ivory dug up from cave floors in Swabia (in southern Germany) and Austria. Herzog brings these sculptures into his film,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.