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Note: This post may contain spoilers.

Like almost all of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011) operates on two levels: in this case the important discovery of the cave and the attempts at finding greater meanings therein.

The important discovery is the Chauvet caves found in France in 1994. These caves featured paintings on the wall that were dated to 32,000 years ago, more than twice as old as any others previously discovered. In the voiceover Herzog himself calls it “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture.”

He builds on this importance in part by bringing us into the filmmaking process, such us how they had to get permission, the limitations they faced on filming, and the processes they had to go through even to get into the cave.

Even with these limitations, however, the film takes us onto a journey into this cave. Along the way several scientists serve as our guides, talking about the features and the significance of the paintings, the bones, and the other formations. One woman, for example, explains the significance of the series of red dots the turn out to be palm prints from a man who had a crooked little finger. Another expert explains the famous panel of the horses, it being labeled “one of the great works of art in the world,” and points out the illusion of movement within what some might consider a very simple painting.

But as always with Herzog there is an underlying larger connection that he is trying to find. In the voiceover he states, “These images are memories of long-forgotten dreams,” reminding us that these paintings were done by people who had motivations and we will never know what those motivations were. They are, as he says, “enigmatic.”

But the answers, not to mention whatever the questions may be, also lead to speaking with other experts outside the caves. He speaks to them about Paleolithic Venuses, flutes, spears, and other artifacts from that era.

But in the end he and his crew are able to return to the cave and do more extensive filming, and here is where the film almost becomes like a rock concert (sorry) in that the cameras provide a front-row view of the images on the walls. I appreciated the sequence the most because no one explained what we were looking at, no voiceover waxed poetic about the significance, and really no one said anything at all. We just got a chance to look.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh is a documentary blogger and mass media professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Follow her on Twitter @documentarysite.