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Film / Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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"We are locked in history and they were not."

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a 2010 documentary feature film by Werner Herzog.

It is a documentary about Chauvet Cave in the south of France, famous since the 1994 discovery in the cave of cave paintings that are estimated to be 35,000 years old—or, to put it differently, some of the oldest art created by human beings to survive, anywhere. After recounting the story of the discovery of the cave and the paintings, Herzog explains that the cave is closed and access is strictly regulated (tourism in other cave painting sites like Lascaux caused damage to the art). Herzog's film crew is allowed only limited access to Chauvet Cave's interiors for short periods of time, due to both concern for the art and high concentrations of carbon dioxide and radon gases.

The result of Herzog's access is spectacular photography, not just of the cave art, but the cave itself, with sparkling crystal formations as well as stalactites and stalagmites. The cave art is shown to be amazingly sophisticated, by artists with a deep understanding of technique. Herzog explains that no human remains are found in the cave and it is believed to be a place that was used for art and perhaps ceremonies. Various scientists and archaeologists talk about the possible meanings behind the paintings and aspects of Stone Age life (one man plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a Stone Age flute). All of this is filtered through Herzog's famously oddball, idiosyncratic narration.


Shown in 3-D in theaters.


  • Chiaroscuro: Quite a bit of this, because the cave is mostly unlit and the scientists and film crew are going through the darkness with hand-held spotlights and flashlights.
  • Ethereal Choir: Herzog's default choice for background music. An Ethereal Choir is singing over the opening tracking shot as a camera swoops through the French countryside towards the cave, and the same choir is singing during a long narration-free segment near the end where the cameras and the lights simply pan over the paintings.
  • Fauxlosophic Narration: Herzog's flights of fancy get pretty odd sometimes, like at the end when he shows albino alligators in a tank (20 miles away from Chauvet Cave) and wonders if we're like the albino alligators when we look at the cave paintings.
  • Heartbeat Soundtrack: At one point the supervisor in the cave tells everyone to be absolutely quiet and challenges them to listen for the sound of their heartbeats. After a pause, the sound of a heartbeat plays over the soundtrack.
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  • Lemony Narrator: Herzog's signature style. He examines the "Venus of Hohle Fels", made at the same time as the Chauvet Cave paintings, as well as a second, similar ancient figurine of a naked fat woman. Herzog snarks that "There seems to have existed a visual convention extending all the way beyond Baywatch.
  • Lens Flare: Seen several times while exploring the cave, like one time when a guy wearing a flashlight helmet looks straight at the camera.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: As with other cave painting sites the emphasis of the artists was on the local wildlife. There are horses and rhinoceroses and now-extinct animals like the cave lion and the woolly mammoth. The only quasi-depiction of a person is a surreal depiction of a woman's hips, private area, and crotch, attached to the head of a bison.
  • Stock Footage: The film talks about how the people who painted the caves are known to have gone in with torches, and built fires inside. One scientist notes how a flickering light would make the paintings appear to move, and wonders if the people in the cave danced with the shadows. This is illustrated by, of all things, a clip of Fred Astaire dancing with shadows in Swing Time.
  • Talking Heads: Many scientists talk about the cave and Stone Age art and life.

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