On Netflix: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Urglegurgle. I’m trying to prep a lecture on synapse formation, and just discovered that Herzog’s amazing film about Chauvet cave is available…so I’m trying to scribble up technical notes on molecular biology while getting constantly distracted by 32,000 year old cave paintings. It’s good to live in the 21st century, but I think my brain is getting full.

(Also on Sb)


  1. adamantium says

    Too many distractions is definitely a downside to the modern world. I’m somehow trying to write a paper on DNA genealogy while watching the Saints game and eating dinner. I can make it work, I think.

  2. andylowry says

    Got that one from Amazon on the day of its release. The paintings are really amazing, especially the horses and now-extinct species (cave lion, woolly rhino, et cetera). Herzog fans, don’t worry about the nonfictional form of the movie– Werner still manages to get bizarre at the end with some albino crocodiles.

  3. marksparrow says

    Saw this at a local film series recently. It was interesting to see the part about the cave bear skulls being placed on an alter and facing towards the exit of the cave with burnt charcoal around them as if in ritual of some sort. Also interesting to me that neanderthals were still around and interbreeding with humans at the same time these drawings were made.

  4. says

    I didn’t like the speculation about the “altar” and “incense” — that was rather stretching the evidence. I get annoyed at the part where someone comes on and tells me how to experience the paintings (“hear the sounce of the rhino horns striking each other” — bleh). Where the narration tells me facts, like that the palm prints were from a single individual, or that two bison paintings, one on top of the other, were made 5,000 years apart, it’s helpful and insightful.

    Otherwise, I want the narration to shut up and just show me the paintings.

  5. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    “hear the sounce of the rhino horns striking each other”

    Those sounces can get annoying.

  6. interrobang says

    *sigh* This looks really fascinating, except for the “in 3D” part. Thanks to the fact that I have really bad astigmatism and strabismus, I think “3D” movies are probably nothing more than an express trip to a migraine headache…

  7. addiepray says

    I did see this in 3d and was totally blown away. The way he used the technology, to really show the way the art intersects with the texture of the cave walls, was, I thought, very moving. Its the only time i can recall the 3d experience transforming the whole movie and becoming essential rather than just an extra bell and whistle, like an extra color on the palette. Overall, I was deeply affected by the whole film.
    I’m also a sucker for Herzog’s pseudo-deep babbling, ranging from interesting insights to absolute gobbledeygook to bizarre poetry and back in a matter of seconds. I find it very entertaining, like having a conversation with someone who is both well read, brilliant, and somewhat loony. And who else could find an archaeologist named Wolf dressed in animal skins playing the Star Spangled Banner on a flute made from a vulture bone?
    Curious to see this again in 2d.
    My wife couldn’t get over the fact that there were once rhinos in France.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    …that two bison paintings, one on top of the other, were made 5,000 years apart…

    Graffiti is sooo old.

  9. StevoR says

    It’s good to live in the 21st century, but I think my brain is getting full.

    Know the feeling. Sometimes there’s just so much wonderful fascinating stuff to take in it seems impossible to give it all the time and memory space it needs.

    There’s also a few things that we (well I) wish could be deleted from memory – almost everything to do with “celebrities” eg. Paris Hilton, football, the creationists drivel and the last few (US & Aussie)elections. herman Cain? Who needs to remember him? John McCain, well I guess we can remember the Planetarium =Overhead projector gaffe and him introducing a certain unfunny Palin to the political scene but other than that – delete file please. Oh & Tim Pawlenty .. who?

    If only we could allocate and choose todelete memories liek omputer files. Sigh.

  10. StevoR says

    D’oh! Typos. I previewed, I added one line I should’ve checked and voila. I meant to have written :

    If only we could allocate and choose to delete memories like computer files. Sigh.

    If only words turned out how I thought I’d typed them too. Sigh.

    @7. sc_f04862ddff9b5a3a6e39477906200990 says:
    4 December 2011 at 9:27 pm :

    If two rhino horns clash in a cave, but there are no Neanderthals there to hear them, do they make a sounce

    Depends? Are there any Homo sapiens (Cro Magnon girls?) or even Homo floriensis living in that cave? ;-)

  11. StevoR says

    @3. marksparrow says: 4 December 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Also interesting to me that neanderthals were still around and interbreeding with humans at the same time these drawings were made.

    Possibly silly question here, sorry, but if Neandert(h)als and Humans could interbreed doesn’t that at least technically make them the same species?

    Hmm.. come to think of it there’s are horse and donkey crosses too aren’t there? But could we breed a chihuaha with a Great Dane? Blurred boundaries?

  12. rbrannan says

    aw, come on PZ. you know those cave paintings aren’t 32k years old. they can’t possibly be more than say 5kyo. that’s just gawd-awful messing with our heads again to make things “seem” like they’re that old so he/she/it can test our faith.

    so true about the interpretation business. there’s seems to be a tendency to do that to ancient relics, even by pro researches. perhaps they’re looking too hard for religious artifacts.

    the site at Gobekli Tepe, Turkey is very interesting but when Klaus Schmidt (principal researcher) and others describe it as the “world’s oldest human-made religious structure” you have to ask: how can they say that!? nothing is known about the “use” of the site or even if it had a use. any assertion that it served any religious function is speculation.

  13. says

    I had the keenest sense, like many people did, of raw place and person and importance in those images from the first time I saw those carefully drawn bison and cats and horses in a book twenty years ago. That the assemblage were drawn over so many thousands of years speaks to the antiquity of deep human experience, if nothing else.

    This film was definitely worth the extreme nausea induced by the 3D cameras (*woof* – I had to leave the theater for a few minutes). I thought I’d never have the chance to walk through those caves. Now I feel like I’ve been there!

  14. Chris Booth says

    I agree. You youngsters may not remember, but back in my day, everybody had a cave-bear-skull shelf in their cave. It wasn’t an “altar”.

  15. John Morales says


    Where the narration tells me facts, like that the palm prints were from a single individual, or that two bison paintings, one on top of the other, were made 5,000 years apart, it’s helpful and insightful.

    I agree 100%.

    (Also, the stupid, stupid “aah” background music really annoys the bejesus outta me)

  16. unclefrogy says

    I have not seen the movie but I have watched the trailer and I like the way Herzog talks he really likes things.
    I was reminded of this http://intellagence.eu.com/acoustics2008/acoustics2008/cd1/data/articles/000892.pdf

    it is the result of studies of the acoustics of the caves where the pictures where found indicating that the sound of the caves was likely part of the experience of the caves. With the additional effects of reverberation it would be walking in dream time awake indeed. one of the things that impresses me about the works I have seen is that there is no sign of any hesitation in the drawing the line just seems flow as in one motion. That takes a lot of practice.
    To see the artist under flickering light make the animals appear out of the living rock while singing in the resonant deep dark earth would be a profound experience.

    uncle frogy

  17. madtom1999 says

    PZ #5 – why is it everything archaeologist don’t understand is religious?
    Stone circles – when looked at from an animal handling point of view are perfect processing sites, wood and stone henges are perfect for drying skins and pemmican and flint flakes are always found near the central altar.
    OK there is often an astronomical alignement but why not? Everything in my house is perfectly aligned with the horizon but it is not a temple to sunrise or sunset…

  18. chigau (違う) says

    I’m an archaeologist and I don’t think stone circles are religious sites. I think they are the remnants of dwellings.
    I’ve never seen one with a central altar.
    Where are you doing archaeology?

  19. waybeyondsoccermom says

    Thanks, PZ, for promoting the movie. I just watched it on Netflix, and because I found the music a bit invasive, I turned the sound off and the captions on. It was a terrific to view the caves without having the music influencing how I felt.

  20. stwriley says

    I saw this one in 3D in the theater and walked out more angry with Herzog than anything else. He spent a good half of the film on process. Not the archeological process of exploring and documenting this amazing site, but on his own process of filming it. That put me off right there.

    Then he wanders off (as PZ notes above) on these over-dramatic and strained interpretations of his own about what these images mean and how we should view them. Then there’s that ridiculous end sequence that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

    All of this nonsense took film time away from the fantastic and cutting edge work the researchers are doing. We got about three minutes of the film on the 3d mapping work the team is doing (an amazing and highly useful effort that will be a boon to many other researchers) but we get endless narration about Hertzog’s own imaginings of the scene.

    So why did I leave not just disappointed but angry? Because Hertzog wasted not only his own opportunity, but that of every other film-maker who might have done a better job at showing the real and fantastic science going on at Chauvet Cave. Since the site is so sensitive and fragile, they have already made it known that no other film crew will be allowed to film there for a very long time, if ever. So we’re stuck with Hertzog’s sappy schtick as our only real visual record of these wonders.

    The man has some actual talent and the shots of the paintings themselves are often quite good (though he spends too much time on gratuitous panning in close-up over the images), but that only makes the whole thing worse. He should have resisted the siren song of his ego and focused on the real characters he should have shown us in much better detail: the amazing works of these long-gone members of our species and the equally amazing work being done by current members of the same species to understand it.

  21. thomasmorris says

    The man has some actual talent

    More than “some” talent – he’s one of our greatest living filmmakers (and therefore one of our greatest living artists.) His studies, both fiction and non-fiction, of obsession, of those who live on the fringes of society, and of people in extreme situations and environments – “Aguirre,” “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Stroszek,” “Fitzcarraldo,” “Little Dieter Needs To Fly” – are extraordinary.

    Of course, with his documentary work, you kind of have to except his outsized personality. Addiepray’s description of his “pseudo-deep babbling” is perfectly accurate, and he sometimes has a very discursive style (meaning that you may sometimes wish he’d just slow down and spend more time on a single topic of interest.) I personally find that his personality plays a huge part in the appeal of his documentary work, but I can understand why some would be put off by it.

    Of course, I say all this without having seen “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” yet. I know he does strike out every once in a while (which is inevitable when you’ve made as many films as he has) – though I think may be the first time, in all the history of his career, that anyone has described his style as “sappy” – but don’t judge his entire career on it, as he is an intelligent and enormously talented man, as well as an often brilliant filmmaker.

  22. stwriley says

    @ Thomasmorris

    I know Hertzog’s other work, but had hoped this would follow his documentary model in the vein of “Encounters at the End of the World”. What I found instead was a film that seemed to channel the obsessive and narcissistic characteristics of many of his fictional characters. I’ve admired his fictional work (though never really loved it) but I’d have a hard time calling him “one of our greatest living filmmakers” after this.

    I would certainly have been less annoyed if I’d been able to do what some of the commenters above did: turn off the sound except when an actual scientist was talking. Believe me, that’s where the “sappy” comes in, as he waxes poetic about the thoughts and feelings of ancient humans in ways that can’t possibly be anything but products of his imagination (not what I go to see a documentary for.) But that’s just a part of the problem. Mostly it was the wasted opportunity for anyone else to do better than this film no matter how much they may want to.

    By the way, I went to see this with a friend who is a filmmaker himself (he owns a small production company here in Philly that specializes in documentary and training works for non-profits) and he had much the same reaction as I did, even though he’s a big fan of Hertzog’s other work.

  23. crissakentavr says

    The woo was annoying, but it’s just trying to stir the moment. It does say we can’t know why each thing was done, or if it was an altar, but it was placed in a position that was visible from an entrance angle we’d usually associate with significance.

    I have to say, see it in 3D. It really gives a sense of the surfaces the paintings are on, and is the closest to spelunking you’ll ever get without actually crawling through a cave.

    And you’ll never see that park in the same light again, knowing this is under it ^-^

  24. crissakentavr says

    The reason so much process and sap got into the film isn’t just that Hertzog is a bad filmmaker – it’s that you don’t get 90 minutes of stirring footage in the amount of time he was allowed to film. And filming is a process, one that is not invisible, and one that educates you about what you’re looking at to see the process.

    Sure, we could’ve spent more time listening to interviews in their prefab offices, but I’d rather see film of them setting up their cameras and how the paths are connected and what it is I’m looking at. Basically, it’s an hour special with fifty minutes extra thrown in because there’s no commercials and movie theaters expect an hour and a half time slot. Anyone tangentially connected with filmmaking – or just observant – should know this already.

  25. thunderbird5 says

    @24 thomasmorris

    I would add “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle)”, to that list. I first saw it when I was around 12 years old and (as did seeing “Walkabout” on TV a few years earlier) it forever changed the way I thought about films – and life and things in general.