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Blu-ray Review: 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'

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Humankind's Earliest-Known Figurative Pictorial Art

Werner Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World) wrote, directed and narrates Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a documentary about the world's oldest paintings. Discovered in 1994, these are Ice Age paintings of horses, bison, lions, rhinos and other animals on the walls of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France. There are paintings here that are quite possibly 32,000 years old, though there's some dispute. But the Chauvet Cave paintings are believed to be substantially older than those in the better-known caves of Lascaux and Altamira.

When Cave of Forgotten Dreams ran in theaters, it showed in both 3-D and 2-D. Critics generally praised Herzog's use of the 3-D format because it is able to capture the way the prehistoric painters exploited the irregular contours of the cave walls in creating the artworks. On Blu-ray, the disc contains the film in both 3-D and 2-D formats. If you have the necessary equipment, you can enjoy the movie in 3-D, but it's also quite good in 2-D.

Shooting in the Chauvet Cave wasn't easy — the filmmakers were required to stay on preexisting two-foot-wide metal walkways, and the lights used had to be of a type that didn't generate much heat. But Herzog and his crew, which consisted of only three others, have nevertheless given us a privileged view of humankind's early efforts to create art.

Viewers should be warned that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is slow-paced, and there are longueurs. Also, Herzog's style is discursive. But the film is well worth seeing because of the importance of the subject matter.

Werner Herzog's Ruminations on the Chauvet Cave Paintings

Herzog tries to put the Chauvet Cave paintings in context for viewers. He has an archaeologist show the 40,000-year-old Venus of Hohle Fels, a small statuette that is the world's oldest known example of figurative art. Also shown is a replica of the 32,000-year-old Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel, the oldest known anthropomorphic figurine. The point here is to present key works of Aurignacian culture, which sprang up 28,000 to 40,000 years ago and arguably marked the initial explosion of humankind's artistic impulse.

There is only a single partial representation of a human in all of Chauvet Cave. Drawn on a phallic-looking rock pendant, it shows the legs and genitals of a woman connected to a bison head. As the curator points out, this brings to mind the drawings of the Minotaur and the woman by Picasso.

Herzog imagines that in prehistoric times there may have been ceremonies in Chauvet Cave where people built fires and danced with the shadows that were cast on the wall. At this point in the documentary, he inserts the famous clip from Swing Time (1936) in which Fred Astaire, through movie trickery, appears to be dancing with three copies of his shadow.

There's a postscript in Cave of Forgotten Dreams that shows Herzog at his quirkiest. The filmmakers go 20 miles from Chauvet Cave to a place where a tropical biosphere has been created using the warm water from a nuclear power plant. Albino crocodiles swim in the water there, and Herzog plays with the idea that they might make their way over to Chauvet Cave and look at the paintings.

Supplementary Feature About the Music

The only extra on the Blu-ray disc is "Ode to the Dawn of Man," a 39-minute documentary Herzog made showing musicians at work recording the music for the soundtrack of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. This took place over two days in July 2010 in the Protestant Church of Haarlem, The Netherlands.

The main focus here is on Ernst Reijseger, who composed the work and plays cello. Reijseger's wife and cute infant daughter are visitors at the recording session, and we are reminded that even before a human baby can walk or talk, it already responds to music.

In addition to Reijseger, there are two other instrumentalists: a keyboard man, who plays organ and piano, and a guy who plays some kind of end-blown metal flute (a pennywhistle?). There are also eight vocalists — four women and four men — who sing nonsense syllables. The vocalists are known collectively as the Nederlands Kamerkoor (Dutch Chamber Choir).

When you're watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the music on the soundtrack often comes across as new-agey. But when you're watching this supplementary feature, you become aware that you're listening to avant-garde music being performed by virtuoso musicians.

DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: November 29, 2011
Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

A pre-release review copy of the Blu-ray Disc was provided by MPI Home Video. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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