The Parallel Film: Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the latest film from German director Werner Herzog. The film premiered in New York City on October 2nd at The New Yorker Festival.

Director Werner Herzog (left) inside the Chauvet cave.

When Werner Herzog was granted access to film in the very secretive Chauvet cave in France—sealed for 30,000 years with pristinely preserved Paleolithic wall paintings, and discovered in 1994—he at first resisted his producer’s suggestion that he document it in 3D.

“I have seen Avatar,” Herzog said, much to the delight of the crowd gathered for the Q&A following the New York premiere of his new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, last Saturday evening at The New Yorker Festival. “Everything you see in the film [Avatar] is completely articulate in three dimensions. Beyond what you’re seeing on screen, there is no space for fantasy, no space for you to complement, to complete the film on a different level… I have created a dictum: Yes, shoot a porno film in 3D. Not a romantic comedy. So I am a skeptic of 3D movies.”

But something about the images on the very three-dimensional surfaces of the cave walls at Chauvet changed Herzog’s mind: “It was immediately clear this was to be shot in 3D, from the moment I saw the paintings,” he explained.

And a wise choice it was. Herzog’s use of 3D fits the environment he’s documenting: uneven, curved, and jagged cave walls. These Paleolithic artists used the dimensionality of the cave surfaces, with all their contours and shadow-casting edges, as their canvases upon which images of horses, bison, rhinos, and other animals were rendered. The results appear almost animated in the flickering light, and in some cases even have multiple limbs drawn in a sequential row— an effect Herzog refers to as “proto-cinema” in the film’s narration, and one that he purposefully strengthened by shifting the light sources on the cave wall as he panned and floated his camera along its surface.

Despite his skepticism of 3D filmmaking, Herzog somehow still allows us space to contemplate and “complete” the film within us while we watch these images through our silly 3D glasses. “Allowing the audience the parallel movie within yourself, that was my challenge with this film,” he said.

So how do we approach these images, the first known human artistic objects in the world, and how do we imagine the people that created them, so far from us in time?

I imagine the parallel film that ran within me while watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not so different than the parallel film that ran within the observers of this art as they gazed at it millennia ago, perhaps in a ceremonial setting with shadows dancing along its surfaces. And the reason for this similarity in experience, however improbable it is across such a gulf in time and in human ideas about the world and existence, is that I share with these distant ancestors a brain that has not changed very much in its physical properties. The ideas contained within it may seem wildly different, but consciousness, art, and the self are deep phenomena that extend back even beyond the creation of these images. We may never know the specific use or meaning of these images for their creators, but I do think a deeper meaning— an essential quality of communication—can be strung across time and space to the movie theater, where we sit behind our 3D glasses.

Herzog points us in this very direction. On Saturday, he ended his Q&A with a statement that provides an invaluable directive on how to begin to handle these millennia-old images: “Don’t ever trust a movie. Trust in imagination. Trust in your own ecstasy. Trust in the ecstasy of truth.”

A section of the cave paintings at Chauvet.

However mysterious in its meaning and use, the cave art at Chauvet is a record of the consciousness of its creators, and it is strikingly ego-less. As one scientist remarks in the film, these people were probably far more “permeable” than we are today—permeable between the spiritual and the physical, the identity of a human and that of an animal or a plant. We encounter ego-less artwork that bespeaks the permeability between a single creator and a community, gathered in this dark cave that seems to engender a collective human experience, and it challenges our Western notions of “the artist.” Yet in the silence, even as we hear our own heartbeat, we feel some eerie presence of these people in the images they have left us. The ego in the images is not of individuals, but rather of a species that has triumphed in the material world and is now able to represent what they see on the inside: the images flashing through their minds now externalized, dancing on the walls of a cave. In a sense, walking into this in 3D cave feels like walking into the mind of a people long disappeared, and we are confronted with the splendor of their visual memory of the world around them.

And this is the parallel film that plays out within us. In neuroscience, consciousness is sometimes described as an awareness of thought itself, a lighthouse gazing into the abyss of the unconscious as it plucks information, ponders and predicts, constantly forming the narrative of our thought.

Art then emerges as perhaps our best record of this narrative of human consciousness, a record which scientific analysis of neurons and firing patterns would be hard pressed to match with any subjective or objective force.

The concept of permeability mentioned by the scientist in the film is helpful in thinking about art on this most essential of levels, dating back to the first single-celled organism. For the perception of the world, the awareness of our own brains at work as we sift through memory and emotion, and the transference of the internal back into the external through art is the same basic principle of permeability that allowed the first living cell to at once separate itself from the physical environment, yet still give and take what it needed to survive and reproduce, to use something internal to change the external world, and thus affect other organisms.

As we try to imagine our ancestors who lived 30,000 years ago through the visual (and perhaps spiritual) consciousness they recorded in these images, our own egos seem small. Something larger and collective in nature makes its voice heard. It is the beating of our own hearts in the presence of ancient minds deep within this mountain, as we seek to reach out across the void and communicate with something or someone, just as they did. This is the point of departure where Herzog’s ecstatic imagination takes over and creates a parallel film inside each of us.

Additional links:
  • Judith Thurman’s New Yorker article about the Chauvet cave art
  • Variety review of Herzog’s film
  • Cave of Forgotten Dreams to open 2010 DOC NYC Fest

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a filmmaker based in New York.

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