Cave of Forgotten Dreams, see it, but tune the narration out

By Razib Khan | June 20, 2011 8:23 pm

Today I took some time out to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams. My main reaction is that I really would have appreciated less verbal exposition from Werner Herzog. The most gripping portions of the film were invariably those which focused on the cave art with no commentary. These were the scenes where Herzog also seems to have leveraged 3D technology the most seamlessly. In contrast many of the outdoor shots were really disorienting, especially where were trees in the background. There was shot near the end where a person was approaching the camera  with branches framing the background, and it was so jarring that I just looked away.

Not surprisingly all of the standard “talking heads” exposition really didn’t benefit at all from the 3D; it just distracted you while people were trying to explain various archaeological details. Speaking of which, I wish there was more of the scientific background here. Obviously that’s going to be my bias. Herzog naturally provide a spiritual rationale for why the original artists did what they did. That seems more plausible than anything else, but I still assume that the probability of any given hypothesis we offer being correct is going to be low. We just don’t know enough about the human past, and what might have motivated Paleolithic peoples.

If you do go to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams, don’t get discouraged in the middle section when the director allows the researchers to talk at length. The best scenes, with the least verbal and visual clutter within the cave, are near the end of the film. If you can, it might be most rational to purchase the ticket, go do something else, and show up for the last 30 minutes.

  • Wayne Hodges


    You are not the first person to misspell his first name “Werner” in that manner, many do it with purpose to undercut the man and discredit his films (though I assume you would argue a minor overlook and/or simple mistake). His films continue to command viewing decades after their making and his legend grows with that.

    Is it a perfect film? -No.
    Is it an essential film? – Absolutely.
    Was the scientific element that you vented about present? -Yes
    If there was more scientific informations would we have missed out on the humanity of it? -Yes

    “Humaness” as it was put in the film has much a place in the culture of man as the sciences of explanation. This was easily the best film to date of 2011, and the best film period I have seen in 3 years. Regardless of whether these Chauvet caves are ever filmed again or not, people in 100 years will still know of this film. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren who will not even know our names from their family trees will have access to this film when the Hangover Part II’s and the other films like it that are worthless in the “Humaness” sense will be forgotten in even the footnotes of history. Like it or not, Werner’s annoying commentary (annoying to you Razib) has just become the official voice of authority on the Chauvet Cave of our generation to all the generations of the world to come. He may not be Jean-Marie Chauvet or his colleagues, but unto future generations he will be like unto Howard Carter, Gertrude Bell and even Hemingway.

    A fine film.

  • JC

    What Wayne Hodges leaves out is the unnecessary exposition toward the end involving nuclear power, albino crocodiles, and how crocodiles would perceive the cave. First of all, nuclear energy does not turn crocodiles white or affect their DNA in that manner. Note the lack of three-eyed mutant fish around Japan (Hiroshima) or mutant animals in Russia (Chernobyl). Second, there is much speculation that Werner brought the albino crocodiles to the scene in order to continue his “humanness” point. While this would betray the true tenet of a documentary, it also makes one wonder what else was re-positioned to prove his thesis?

  • Jon F

    “I really would have appreciated less verbal exposition from Werner Herzog.”

    You understand that’s like saying “I really would have appreciated fewer explosions from Michael Bay,” right? It’s sorta his thing. Yes, it is a documentary about the cave paintings but it’s also a Herzog film, which means that the conflict between modern humans and “nature” in one form or another is going to be laid on with Herzog’s typical German utter lack of subtlety. The folks who let him make this film clearly didn’t want a BBC documentary or else the old man crawling through the cave would have been David Attenborough. Does that make it less palatable to an American audience? Maybe, but when I bought tickets to it I knew I was going to see a Werner Herzog film and, well, I got what I paid for.

    Though I will agree with commenter #2 above, the albino crocodile scene at the end was well over-the-top and I can’t help but feel like Herzog’s message could have been conveyed better by ending the movie practically any way other than that.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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