Dir. Werner Herzog
(2011, G, 90 min)

Werner Herzog is one of the more consistently interesting and idiosyncratic filmmakers currently working. Just two years ago he directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a bizarre, hysterical, and yet oddly brilliant drama about a corrupt Louisiana cop. That film bears almost no resemblance to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary that explores the perfectly preserved interior of a cavern discovered in southern France in 1994, though, curiously, both films include scenes that consider the point of view of reptiles.

But Cave is strikingly similar to another recent Herzog film: Encounters at the End of the World, which considered life at an Antarctic science station. He approaches both subjects much the same way, overlaying striking images with a haunting musical score, waxing philosophic about the relationship between human beings and the world around us, and pondering the vastness of time. If I responded a bit more strongly to Encounters, it’s partly because this film’s talking-head interviews are more instructive than inspiring, and because I find Antarctica an inherently more interesting visual subject than rock paintings.

That’s the astonishing find inside this French cave: it’s filled with artwork that dates back tens of thousands of years, which makes it the earliest discovered art on planet Earth. This fact in and of itself is impressive, especially when you consider that a long-ago rock slide sealed the cave and its contents, leaving them as pristine as if they were drawn yesterday. The best sequences of the film direct us simply to meditate on the fact of our human eyes and human cameras capturing what human hands made eons ago. We – and I’m sure Herzog as well – can feel a human connection reaching out to us through an inconceivable distance of time; all else has been lost from this ancient culture and its people, yet through these images we can almost reach out and touch them.

Many scenes are simply close-up pans of the artwork set to music. One such montage, presented at the end of the film, is overlong, like staring at an exhibit in an art gallery past the point where admiration becomes tedium. The film was released to theaters in 3D, but I watched it in 2D, streaming through Netflix; whether something is lost in the translation I can’t say. But the marvel of what these archaeologists have found is apparent. One wonders what will be left of us thirty-thousand years from now, whether future artists and scientists will find some remnant of us, and whether we mere mortals in this day and age will also be outlived by the beauty we create.