Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is not the only recent film release that has probed the big questions and explored the wonders and mysteries of the natural world with a gloriously sincere, child-like awe and wonder. Werner Herzog’s astonishing, engrossing Cave of Forgotten Dreams has the same sort of existential curiosity as Life; the same operatic majesty. Both Malick and Herzog are explorers, philosophers, taking their cameras to the far reaches of the earth to create a cinematic meditation as interested in the science of the natural world as it is in the longings of the human heart.
Herzog’s Cave takes audiences inside the Chauvet cave in southern France, where in 1994, discoverers stumbled upon the earliest known prehistoric cave paintings. The cave, which had been sealed by a rockslide many thousands of years ago, had preserved a vast array of cave drawings (of horses, lions, bears, panthers, hyenas, etc.) painted by prehistoric man more than 30,000 years ago.
To cave is so historically significant that, in order to preserve its priceless relics, only a handful of humans (mostly scientists, archeologists, historians) are allowed to enter to the cave, and then only for a few hours at a time at a certain time of year. In other words, you and I will never be able to go inside. But thanks to Mr. Herzog, and the power of cinema to take audiences into forbidden, forgotten, unreachable places, we do get to take a look inside.
After receiving special permission from the French minister of culture, Herzog and a crew of three were allowed entrance to the cave to film the documentary, using custom-made 3D camera equipment and limited lighting. It’s a testament to Herzog’s artistry that, even with so many limitations (they could only enter the cave for a few hours at a time, and could never step off a metal walkway inside the cave), the film feels as grandiose and epic as an opera.
As in Herzog’s previous films like Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which explored the culture of scientists working in Antarctica, or Grizzly Man (2005), which observed the eccentric life of Timothy Treadwell amidst the grizzly bears of Alaska, Cave is preoccupied with the interplay between natural wonders and the humans who’ve dedicated their lives to exploring them and understanding them. Herzog’s films feature jaw-dropping natural imagery and documents of wonders that feel genuinely undiscovered, but sometimes his camera seems even more interested in the humans he encounters in the process of discovery. Like any documentary, Herzog’s Cave features talking head “experts.” But they’re more than talking heads. For Herzog, they are the subjects and stars of the film, embodying the mysteries and themes of the film as much as the cave paintings themselves.
Featuring his characteristically subjective, speculative voiceover, Herzog turns Cave into more than just a History Channel-funded documentary of one of earth’s most important historical sites. He uses the film to ask big questions about what makes a human human: Are these cave paintings representative of some transition in the development of the human soul, where man discovered art, representation, culture for the first time? What can we learn from these paintings about the nature of man and his relationship with the world around him, with God? What drives man’s curiosity about existence? What drives him to create art?
These questions arise on at least three levels in the film, as reflections of 1) the prehistoric humans who created the cave art, 2) the humans today who have devoted their lives to understanding things like history, and 3) Herzog himself, who finds himself compelled to make films like this, a sort of meta analysis of the human activity of culture.
In the end, Cave is more than just an document of a historical wonder. It’s a self-probing meditation on the very meaning of civilization, of culture, of creation. It takes us all the way back to the very beginning of culture, to help us understand just how glorious, unexpected and valuable is man’s facility for self-conscious reflection on himself and his world.