So the other day I went to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams a new documentary by Werner Herzog. I had heard a fair bit about this film, but wasn’t sure about going to see it. But thanks to brother and his birthday – I did.

For those who are not aware of this film – it is basically a documentary (in 3D I will add) about the Chauvet caves of Southern France. Discovered by three explorers in 1996, the caves were found to contain the oldest known and perhaps some of the most spectacular cave paintings we have ever found. Hundreds of animal paintings have been discovered and catalogued in the caves and it is generally considered as one of the most important and significant prehistoric art sites in the world. Essentially, due to part of the cave collapsing many thousands of years ago, this prehistoric gallery was sealed up to the outside world  – helping to preserve it. The caves are now very carefully managed with little access granted to anyone so as to not disturb the delicate balance within the cave system and damage the preservation of the paintings and other items of historical interest.

Werner Herzog was granted exclusive access (all be it limited!) to film inside the caves. I say limited, because the controls of how long and how many of them could enter the caves and where they could go had to be strictly adhered to.



For those who are not aware of Herzog – he is a Director, Writer and Producer from Munich in Germany. Perhaps best known for his documentaries – including the recent success of Grizzly Man (2005). He has also directed numerous features perhaps most notably Cobra Verde and his version of Nosferatu. His biography is rather wide and varied (including numerous Opera’s) and riddled with critical acclaim. His films are renowned for featuring long and lingering landscape shots and using brooding Cello & violin musical scores.

I am not quite sure how to tackle this post – so think I might conduct the battle on two fronts! First – thoughts on the caves and paintings themselves. Second – a review of the film in it’s own right. Perhaps, you would think the two should be tackled together…but I disagree and my reasons will (may!) become clear! But in principal, the film and the subject matter it covers are quite different beasts and I feel are strangely detached from each other in a way!


First up then, the caves but to put a more precise point on it – the paintings. Caves are great, we all know that – so lets not even bother to go there. This is a big cave, lots of stalagmites and stalactites, many other cave type things. All good – I shall always enjoy looking at a cave, as should all others.


The paintings then – my word the paintings. I would challenge anyone to see this film (or just some pictures for that matter) and fail to be blown away, humbled and inspired by them. Not only are they over 30,000 years old – but they are amazing and beautiful in every way. I think we are all too often bombarded with stories of amazing archaeological or cultural discoveries, that, to the untrained eye (i.e not a scientist or archaeologist or historian etc) seem a trifle disappointing. You know what I mean, you hear about an incredible new ruin being found somewhere and when you look into it – there are just a few light scuff marks in the mud that are apparently walls to a spectacular kingdom! We all pretend to find it amazing, but as most of us don’t know what we are looking at…it is very hard to get too enthused! In fact, I suspect that last statement was exactly how Tony Robinson managed to get someone to finance the making of Time Team!!!


But, these paintings really are mind blowing. They show a distinct level of sophistication and a practised hand. You really get the impression that these are not the daubings of a hairy and primitive monkey-man, but the creations of an experienced and considered society. The study of shape and form is lovely – of course not all the proportions and perspective is accurate in our perhaps limited definitions – but, all this time on, we can easily recognise what animals the paintings are off. They show amazing mark making skills and the ability to express shape in a single long line. Some even appear to have shading and the curves of the cave walls are used to accentuate and enhance the forms.


What inspired me was the fact I sat there watching images of these paintings and thoughts came to me like “that is so much better than I could do” or “if a contemporary artist presented images like that in a gallery, I reckon they would be very well received”. I then caught myself with these thoughts and was overcome by my immediate assumption that because they were done so long ago – I should be able to do better! Or because they were so old, they would not be able to stand up in today’s artistic environment. This thought process highlighted to me why the paintings are so interesting.

First, ancient art like this really does help us understand the significance that creation has in our evolutionary journey. At what point did we take a tool and use it to express ourselves in a creative way? What motivation was there to make a mark on a wall or carve a representative shape out of a piece of bone? Was the motivation ceremony, spiritual belief or simply for entertainment? Why has no other animal yet reached this point of expression (barring when they shove a paint brush in a monkeys hand of course).  Mind you –  I say that and immediately realise I am wrong! The male Bowerbird for example definitely decorates its nest and shows amazing knowledge of colour! the female then judges the nests on their artistic merit and mates with the one they enjoy the most! Amazing.


However, perhaps the Bowerbird is misleading – or perhaps we just can’t ever know, because what level of awareness is it doing this with? Also, it is not recreating something it has seen where as a cave painting is a representation of something seen by the eye. That ability, desire and analytical thought process that makes us see something and re-create it in a form of artistic expression is quite unique and quite thrilling. The point at which this begun as a species is intriguing, but perhaps we will never really know how and when it first began to happen.


Moving on, I loved the fact I couldn’t help but be amazed that a society so long ago managed to paint something so well! To me, this says a lot about my inherent assumptions of the past and of art in general. There is no good reason to assume that since we first started being able to think more laterally and manipulate our surroundings that there would not have been those who were more ‘gifted’ than others and show a natural talent for something like painting. Of course, we are currently blessed with tens of thousands of years of previous artistic practice to inform and influence us – yet I love the fact we can still be in awe of something created to long ago. The power of art and creativity literally can transcend time.

In the current climate of cuts and the Arts Council recently having to take the knife to itself and numerous other art organisations, I think that seeing things like these cave paintings is the best possible argument there is for the value of art and creativity. Artistic expression really is one of the first things that truly distinguished humans from the rest of the animal world.  Perhaps initially in the way we dressed and adorned our bodies and later in other forms of artistic endeavour. It is something so essential, important and ingrained in us – that to give it as little value and time as it often gets is simply laughable. I am particularly thinking education here. I can’t tell you the number of times I have received slightly derogatory comments about my degree only being in Photography. Likewise, at school – much less time and importance is given to art than other subjects and those who teach it are often perceived to have an easy deal. I ask you though – how many mathematical formulae or economic theories have been found scrawled into cave walls? It all started with art my friends and it will all end with it too!



Alright, turning my attention to the film itself – what was Cave of Forgotten Dreams like? Lets get it out there to start with, I found it rather disappointing and perhaps bordering on the weak.

That is possibly a little on the harsh side, but I shall try to explain.

I really didn’t come away from seeing the film with much idea of what Herzog was trying to get over to me. Also I didn’t really learn anything that I did not already know prior to going into the film. I was aware the cave paintings existed, I knew a little about prehistoric art and such like – coming out of the film, I basically knew the same BUT I had been able to see the paintings in some rather glorious detail.

For me, that is all the film really achieved – it allowed me to see the paintings in a manner in which I will never get the opportunity to in real life. The paintings moved and inspired me and at times, made my hairs stand to attention – BUT and this is the important distinction, that was the paintings at work and not the film. Granted Herzog had a difficult set of circumstances to film in and he managed to get some good documentary shots of the caves, however. as a piece of film making, I really was not that blown away by the photography.


The parts of the film that were outside the caves or not directly showing the paintings seemed to lack much cohesion or direction. I was never quite sure what he was trying to investigate or establish through the film. Some of the people interviewed were quite interesting, but again, it didn’t seem to be very coherent and just as someone was touching on something interesting (either scientifically, anthropologically or about the archaeological process itself) the film changed to something else and left you dangling with scant information and reward.

The narration was at times quite pleasant. Herzog has a very unique and distinct delivery that suits documentary and his style very well. I enjoyed his telling the story of them making the film, but really did not enjoy the almost spiritual bent it took on at times or the grand sweeping assumptions of what people in the caves did and why. Perhaps the worst of these moments was when he asked everyone in the caves to be quiet to see if they could hear their heartbeats – proceeded by an intimation as to whether the caves themselves had a heartbeat, upon which a sound effect to that nature was played. Really – do we need that? Does it do anything for the film or us as viewers? The epilogue that ended the film also seemed a bit of a stretch and seemed a frustrating conclusion for me, although did boast some of the nicest photography of the film!


The documentary was also filmed in 3D. Herzog himself stated that he has never shot in 3D before because his films did not require it, but Cave of Forgotten Dreams seemed ideally suited to the medium. But Brother put it better perhaps, when stating “If anything is going to work in 3D its gotta be caves” This is true, 3D did work in the caves – as the post film debrief by friends illuminated – the 3D allowed us to see the undulations and form of the cave walls themselves and see how the paintings were crafted onto this difficult canvas. Given we will never witness the paintings in real life, 3D certainly seems the most viable alternative.

However, I am still not convinced by 3D – I am yet to see anything that has blown me away or really justified it’s place in cinema. I completely accept that in Cave of Forgotten Dreams it is brilliantly used to show the paintings themselves, but, for the rest of the film it is just frustrating and pointless. Why is no director brave enough to make a film that jumps in and out of 3D? A small icon in the corner of the screen for a few seconds to signify glasses on or off? Especially in something like documentary, it would hardly affect the flow or narrative of the film at all. I think this was an opportunity missed as I do not need to see people being interviewed in 3D – it adds nothing. I can constantly see the frame of the glasses in my peripheral vision and I find myself too aware that things should be 3D so I am fixated on establishing exactly how 3D they are!

Perhaps the biggest gripe I have against 3D, is the quality of image. To me, film needs to be sharp and defined. I want to see the details and get a real feel for a place through an accurately captured bit of footage. 3D tends to soften edges, blur a bit and especially during movement or wide shots – give a bit of a ghost image. That, I am afraid, makes me feel the technology is not good enough yet to use in these situations. I would love to love 3D, but nothing to date has made me get there! I can’t help feeling that many films are being made into 3D just to get an extra £3 out of the audience because it is the current gimmick. Perhaps the most notable case in point is the film ‘Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole’. I admit I haven’t seen it, but I have seen the trailer! I suspect the initial meeting went a bit like this:

PRODUCER: So, we want to make a 3D animation about owls

FINANCER: OK, sounds feasible I guess. There are loads of 3D animal animations though.

PRODUCER: True, but people like them. Kids are mugs for anything animal and IT’S 3D!

FINANCER: Its a competitive world none the less – what will make the film really stand out?

PRODUCER: Well, this is the genius bit – in one scene, owls will fly through rain.

FINANCER: You mean 3D owls flying through 3D falling rain?

PRODUCER: Exactly. Probably do some chasing and diving – perhaps fire too?

FINANCER: Amazing. 3D flying owls and rain. Really, that is genius. How much do you want?

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Sorry. I have gone a bit off track.


On that bombshell, it is time to conclude I think.

Basically, I did really enjoy this film but that is because it is hard not to. It is about some amazing and very ancient paintings. Done by our ancestors so long ago that it literally hurts my mind to comprehend. The question is, would I have enjoyed it more if it was just a half hour 3D film of the caves? Yes, I probably would have!

For me, I felt Herzog got this chance but didn’t really know what to do with it. He went off in numerous directions, but was never sure if he should – meaning the film feels a bit directionless and that it would have been more interesting if it concentrated on one aspect of the paintings. Sometimes obvious details that should have been covered were not even touched upon – for example, what the paint was actually made from.

I felt it went on too long and too many shots were repeated needlessly. As for the music – well, it did get rather annoying. I know he is known for his long Cello scores, but it really did start to grate after a while!


All that aside, I must also stress the positives! The 3D views of the paintings were great and it is easy to forget that Herzog actually achieved getting access to the caves and filming there. He brought the paintings to the wider world and for that we should be grateful. His narrative is quite pleasant and soothing but essentially, I did leave with a real dichotomy of feelings. On the one hand, I was mesmorised by the paintings and the caves and really left in awe of the achievements and skill of our ancestors. On the other, I was left a bit cold and unsatisfied with the film itself and not quite sure what it was trying to tell me.

I am sure many will disagree as most reviews seem very positive. But, I do wonder if that is more for the paintings than the film itself! For those who disagree with this view, I look forward to being enlightened!

P.S – go and see the film, it is still worth a watch!

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