Ecstatic Truth: Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

August 3, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 6 5 min read

coverWerner Herzog, the director of the new 3D documentary The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, has spent a long career carving out a niche entirely his own. His imagination is unmistakable in both fiction and non-fiction films, though his peculiar vision often suggests a perpetual blurring of the lines between categories. In his latest feature documentary he sets his sights on newly accessible prehistoric cave paintings in a valley in southern France, The Cave of Chauvet Pont-D‘Arc. In some ways, Herzog is just the man to explore such a landscape.

coverHis fictional work over the years marks him as one of the most eccentrically provocative visionaries of the past half-century. Part of his eccentricity has to do with something classically cinematic: the suspension of disbelief. You don’t have to question Herzog’s honesty in watching his films, though you might start to question his sanity. During the filming of the enigmatic, annihilating 1972 masterpiece Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, Herzog and his mercurial leading man Klaus Kinski (equal parts collaborator, muse, and mortal enemy) were occasionally known to hold each other at gunpoint. 1982’s Fitzcarraldo isn’t just a film about a wild-eyed rubber baron building an opera house within a giant imported steamship in the mountains of the jungles of Peru, it’s about how the titular character’s inspiration and mad fixity echoes the filmmaker’s own. CGI need not apply: Herzog and his crew actually hauled the entire ship across the mountain themselves. Of course, a documentary was made, and the film Burden Of Dreams is the fascinating (and occasionally hilarious) result.

covercoverNot content to make dramatic fiction his only pursuit, Herzog has consistently and rewardingly made feature-length documentary films about the world’s marginalized, poetic, and just plain odd phenomena. Whether the subject is Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas for Wheel Of Time, exploring the minutia of Antarctica in the Oscar-nominated Encounters At The End Of The World, or tracking Timothy Treadwell’s fatal obsession with wild bears in Grizzly Man, he has made a distinctive, unique mark on documentary style, as well. There is also his personal film school, a seminar really, which promises not to offer anything technical about the aspects of filmmaking unless you include instruction on picking locks, forging shooting permits in foreign countries, neutralizing bureaucracy, and “self reliance”. The reading list includes Virgil’s Eclogues, Hemingway’sThe Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber,” and, of course, The Warren Commission.

coverOne of his recent statements (from the book Herzog on Herzog) has been on virtual reality’s seductive power in today’s world and how “all these tools now at our disposal, these things which are part of this explosive evolution of the means of communication, mean we are now heading for an era of solitude. Along with this rapid growth of forms of communication at our disposal – be it fax, phone, email, internet or whatever – human solitude will increase in direct proportion.” For Herzog, it is the filmmaker’s (and, by extension, the artist’s) responsibility to try to break through the blare of the virtual and to instead attempt to create or document something which is truer, rawer, more alive, and duly more strange.

Luckily, the French Ministry of Culture gave Herzog the opportunity to film inside the Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc with unprecedented if limited access. There probably couldn’t be a better opportunity to shrug off the babble of modernity than to spelunk among ancient traces of prehistoric imagination, and Herzog does this with sympathy, gravitas, and an eye for the absurd.

The cave was discovered in 1994 and within two years a twelve-person team of researchers was nominated to document and analyze the fossils, artwork, and human traces left behind. The team can only work at half capacity, for two weeks at a time, due to the fragility of the cave’s internal equilibrium. Herzog was limited to shooting by himself, with only a couple of cameramen, using heat-reduced lighting. His crew was limited to a two-foot-wide walkway, wearing special suits and shoes. Shooting was restricted to only a few days for several hours at a time due to the near-toxicity of the environment. It adds to the precariousness of the experience as a viewer – one gets the teetering feeling of witnessing something very precious and very delicate, as the camera eye glides across the surfaces.

The effect is evocative, to say the least. Lambent lights flicker across the etchings, looming ochre walls blur and focus, until you start to realize you’re looking at dozens of ancient painted handprints. Some are smaller, suggesting a woman or an adolescent, others are larger, varying in digit size and solidity. There are streaks of black chalk-thick outlines of horses, lions, and bison. In one panel, two rhinoceroses are butting heads across a wall. What’s amazing is that the researchers can surmise how the forms were scrawled into life. In some cases the artists used the texture of the wall itself, etching with wood charcoal and rubbing fingertips covered in clay across the outline. All of this takes place at eye and helmet level with the filmmakers and scientists themselves, amazedly peering into the glowing darkness along with us. At one point the soundtrack is stopped and we listen to the silence of a lost place.

Herzog’s voiceover narration, often a delightfully strange component of whatever he films, is the guide. His crisp articulation and Germanic depth adds gravitas to the wonder. At one point, Herzog suggests that certain pictures of animals sequenced in different stages of motion might even be a prefigured form of cinema, especially when seen by torchlight. It’s kind of a Herzogian thing to suggest, but it’s not entirely far-fetched. Spreading across a stalactite we see what appears to be a composite outline of a bison and the pubic radius of a woman. Some things never change.

Of course, a film like this wouldn’t be complete without some face time with the researchers and enthusiasts themselves. They’re a pretty interesting bunch. One of them, an affable French scientist who used to be a circus performer, disarmingly remarks that after first seeing the etchings of lions he dreamed about real ones for days afterward. He further explains that he found the presence of all the drawings so overwhelming he had to remove himself from the research for a while to take it all in as a human being. We come across a strange perfumer who attempts to sniff out the scent emanating from the cracks of lost caves. There is also a prehistoric enthusiast fully decked out in wolf hide who dances a merry jig while playing The Star Spangled Banner on a carved bone flute. The short, editorialized coda at the end of the film is noteworthy but disturbingly odd, as only a meditation on civilization involving mutant albino crocodiles could be.

Herzog has written repeatedly about the desire to capture what he calls “ecstatic truth.” The example he is fond of using, as he did for a recent appearance on The Colbert Report, is that of the Manhattan phone book.  Sure, anyone can grab one and read off all the exact names, numbers, and addresses of all the residents listed inside, but what you can’t know is if Mr. Jonathan Smith of 125 East St. cries alone on his pillow at night. Or why, for that matter. Facts alone won’t do the trick. What Cave Of Forgotten Dreams offers is the ability to experience a kind of ecstatic truth, ironically found in the facts of the Chauvet cave as we learn them, unveiled from within the subterranean scenery of the cave itself. Witnessing on celluloid (and, if you’re lucky, 3D glasses) the etchings of early human beings, scrawled for whatever reason thousands of years ago, is to observe something ancient and mysterious with your very own eyes. Art, even documentary art, can’t surpass the immediacy of reality; I can’t tell from merely attending a movie what it feels like to be in the cave, or to duck under looming stalactites with bison shapes running down their sides. Nor do I truly know what they mean. But I can say I’ve seen them. That truth alone is ecstatic enough.

is an editor at The Arts Fuse whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baffler, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and other places. A longtime resident of Boston, he has recently moved to New Orleans.


  1. Absolutely lovely notion that those sequences of animals in motion is a form of cinema. I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing far-fetched about it. Just as cinema has the capacity to bring us that much closer to spiritual and physical enormities beyond ourselves, those cave etchings perform a vital dance for the spirit and senses.

  2. Ecstatic truth does he search and find! From his disgust of the rainforest and it’s inhabitants to those that joined him on this cave crusade (he no doubt looking for what makes them cry on their pillow at night).

  3. Although I thought that the cave itself was very interesting and beautiful, Herzog’s narration, cheesy and nonsensical, ruined the film for me. Not to mention the fact that Herzog’s “experts” are, for the most part, people who have absolutely nothing to do with history or caves or anything of the sort. Instead, he interviews philosophers, which, admittedly, could be very interesting, but he asks them questions completely unrelated to their scholarship! I understand that Herzog has a reputation as an eccentric, but, as far as documentaries go, this one did a poor job of documenting anything. After leaving the theater, I joked to my friend that I would have liked the movie much more if someone else had filmed it!

  4. Matt, you actually made Herzog seem interesting — I have resisted his charms up to now. He was on Colbert? My god.

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