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I am something of a Werner Herzog fan-boy. I’ve seen around 30 of the 60+ films for which he is credited as director, as well as a film here or there in which he acted (e.g., Julien Donkey-Boy). When I learned a few years ago, then, that his newest 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) would be shown at a “nearby” cinema, I took my brother and another friend of mine along for the forty-minute drive to watch. The first time I saw the film, the 3D projection was malfunctioning, which proved to be an incredibly distracting experience. The proprietor of the cinema compensated us with free tickets, and so I went back the next day to watch it again. I enjoyed the film so much, and it left such a mark on me, that I now consider it among my very favorites.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary about the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave paintings in France, which date from about 32,000-30,000 years B.C.E. Inside are paintings of bison, rhinoceroses, horses, and other wildlife. There is also an ostensible altar formation, which suggests that the cave had religious significance to its original designers. (Perhaps the animals painted on the wall function as icons of sorts!) In general, Herzog’s film discusses these paintings from the point of view of artistic achievement. For example, there is mention made of some cave paintings which appear to have multiple heads. This is interpreted as an attempt on the part of the early artists to capture motion, which makes them especially interesting to an accomplished and seasoned filmmaker such as Herzog. Beyond this, however, there is also discussion of the spiritual and religious aspects of the cave paintings. One French scientist interviewed for the film discusses the concept of the ancient peoples of permeability: this world and the spiritual world can interact with one another, and there are no hard, impassable boundaries between the two. The cave perhaps functioned as one of these permeable places. He rejects the definition of man as homo sapiens, “the man who knows,” saying instead: “We don’t know, we don’t know much. I would think homo spiritualis.” Thus the essence of man is not knowledge but spirituality—a fascination and interaction with the world beyond.
This film was certainly fascinating as far as documentaries go, since the cave paintings themselves are endlessly fascinating and mysterious artifacts of the very distant past. What I appreciate about it, however, is what I will call the ethical effect it had on me. A common theme in Herzog’s films is this: the precarious existence of vulnerable, wishfully thinking humanity in an unkind, uncaring, uninterested, inhospitable nature. Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972) illustrates this theme very well: the grandiose aspirations of the deluded Spanish conquistadores seeking after the imaginary city of gold, El Dorado, are brought to a pathetic and tragic end by the unforgiving, unwelcoming Amazon jungle. Thus Aguirre demonstrates the futility of humanity attempting to rise up against the forces of nature, so as to conquer them. On the other hand, Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows a humanity leading a life appreciative of nature and the spiritual forces which permeate it. The cave paintings are all of animals: these human persons were fascinated with the world around them, and perhaps even worshiped it, recognizing the divinity behind all.
Behind all this activity, however, there is also the question of the meaningfulness of human life in light of death. These ancient artists are long dead; all that has remained is their paintings, masterpieces yet shut off in an inaccessible cave. Yet in some way, during the film I felt their presence through the paintings I was admiring. Removed by thousands of miles and tens of thousands of years from them, they were nevertheless present with me in the movie theater as I gazed upon their opera. The final shot, especially, affected me powerfully: a single handprint, outlined in red paint perhaps blown through a tube or flute of some sort. This simple image encapsulates two extremes of humanity. On the one hand, it is something even a child would do; I think of myself writing “Steven was here” on another’s piece of paper in grade school. On the other hand, it is a desperate attempt on the part of a mature adult to leave his imprint on the world, knowing that death will soon wipe him out and leave no trace, no memory beyond what he establishes himself. I saw myself and my own concerns in the cave paintings of ancient European humans.
As he typically does, Herzog uses this final image as a background for the beginning of the rolling credits. The pounding, melancholic organ tones of Ernst Reijseger’s soundtrack made the spectacle all the more powerful. In that moment, I felt I was aware of a shared essence of all human persons, who all share the same struggle for a meaningful and lasting existence in hostile world in which death is inevitable, the same fascination with an unseen and powerful order, the same sense of the otherworldly and divine situated just behind what we can observe. Moreover, this perception of commonality led to an experience of love: I felt as if I loved all human persons, wanting the good for them, and as is always the case, praying to God for the sake of the whole world: Lord, have mercy!