The beginning and end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's documentary about a cave in France where prehistoric art has been found, are its only weak points. It starts off with long panning shots with excessively loud and pompous music, giving a forbidding tone that the rest of the film does not possess. Herzog's narration, describing the exact location and other details about the cave, is excessively detailed, and detracts from the clear magnificence of the subject.
At the end, Herzog offers a very odd postscript, describing climate changes caused by a nuclear power plant near the historic cave, which induced a tropical climate leading to mutant albino crocodiles. While it's possible he was trying to describe how the world and its inhabitants change over the years, how the mutant life forms of tomorrow are as removed from humans as humans are from the prehistoric humans who made the art in the cave, the message gets lost in the muddled execution.
The rest of the film, however, is masterful. The images from the cave are indelible; far from typical notions of "prehistoric" art, the depictions of animals are detailed (beautifully showcased in a montage near the end), with clear facial expressions and techniques to suggest movement. They're so detailed and sophisticated that they were initially thought to be forgeries, until analysis of the cave elements coating the paintings proved them to be twenty to thirty thousand years old. The discovery was so remarkable that one archaeologist who examined the artwork in the cave says that, after five days of exploration, he had to leave the expedition for days in order to "absorb" what he had seen. He had dreams about the lions depicted on the cave walls.
The enthusiasm and passion of the explorers comes through in the interviews, and is part of what makes the film so engaging. One notes handprints on one wall, seeing a broken pinky on the hand, which allows her to identify the same prehistoric man as having been in another part of the cave; she says she's "following" the person who walked in the cave thousands of years ago.
Herzog's lighting is one of the best parts of the film. At times, the lights are strong, to clearly illuminate the striking detail of the cave art, but at other times it flickers, to suggest, the narration points out, the torches carried by the prehistoric artists while they drew the pictures. Through this inventive technique, the audience is allowed to travel back in time, to our early ancestors, and view the ancient art through their eyes.
On a personal note, I am a great admirer of Herzog's work, and this may be one of his best efforts. Like the best documentaries, through a specific subject it illuminates and triggers thoughts on a larger scale; in this case, mankind's evolution and the role of art in civilization.
One comment in the film that I found interesting was that, although the bones of many different animals were found in the cave, no human bones were among them, suggesting that humans never lived in that cave. Still, the walls are covered with art. Was it an outpost for travelers? Or a prehistoric art gallery, where early humans displayed their paintings for others to see?
In this and other caves, the explorers have found, in addition to visual art, early musical instruments, a statuette of a woman carved from a mammoth tusk, and even possible evidence of a religious ceremony, a bear skull deliberately placed on a large rock. One archaeologist says that, rather than "homo sapiens", which means "knowing," "homo spiritus" is far more accurate, since "we don't know anything," but human spirit, exemplified in art, began to express itself at this time.
Even early in man's evolution, we had art, representations of what we saw around us. It was simple in subject, but sophisticated in execution (animals were drawn with multiple limbs to suggest movement, the wavy walls of the cave also add to the illusion of movement). One interview subject says the cave art was a means of communication, a way to tell others what they had seen before language evolved. Art, music and religious rites were methods of building society, of strengthening bonds between early humans. Even now, art is used to communicate ideas, or just convey new and interesting images, scenes and stories. Our methods may have evolved, but our aim is the same. We can now manufacture materials for musical instruments instead of having to kill animals and carve flutes from their bones, but the goal of music is the same, to capture mood, soothe or exorcise our psyches, and communicate.