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Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The legendary director talks about shining a light upon the earliest dreams of man across the abyss of time

Nestled among mountains deep in the south of France is the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave – a hermetically-sealed time-capsule containing the oldest artworks known to humankind. Werner Herzog is the first, and will probably be the only, director to ever be granted access to this wonder (discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet), and he has returned from the pitch-black darkness with a 3D film that beautifully captures the sublime mystery these images inspire. There is a magical element to the third in the director's trilogy about our relationship to nature – a sense that there is some form of communication being transmitted across the vast abyss of time that we are simply no longer equipped to understand... dreams, if you will, from the very source of our collective archetypal memory.

True to his idiosyncratic documentary style, Herzog's collaborators in the project become subjects of the film, and at times the sheer amazement writ large upon their faces is enough to send a phenomenal shiver down your spine. We took some time to chat to the director to talk the vast black hole of early history, and the magic lantern cast by the flames that warmed those who wandered the earth 32,000 years ago.

Dazed Digital: What made you want to enter the Chauvet cave?
Werner Herzog: I’m always fascinated to look into the human condition and, of course, this is the early human condition, and it's as if we are witnessing the awakening of the modern human soul. We believed that Neanderthal man didn’t have culture – no symbolic representation was ever evidenced; no sculpture or musical instruments were found; there were no burial rights, or anything that hints towards some sort of religious belief. We do have it here in what we see on the walls though – homosapiens bursting on the scene with art that is so completely accomplished. It’s just really a wonderful thing, and you are completely in awe when you see it. Picasso never knew there was such a thing as this cave, and yet in the paintings it’s as if there is a distant echo… some very ancient dreams coming at us across the abyss of time. 

Dazed Digital: What is the most immediate sensation you had upon entering the caves?
Werner Herzog: What is striking is that you are walking next to the footprints of cave bears, and you know the cave bear became extinct 20,000 years ago, yet you see scratch marks that are completely fresh, as if they were done yesterday. That’s the fantastic thing. It was preserved as a perfect time capsule. This is the only real and complete time capsule.

Dazed Digital: There is a question raised about the purpose of these cave paintings and the way in which they were perceived. How do you think their creators conceived of the world around them?
Werner Herzog:
It’s highly speculative, and I cannot base an answer in really solid argument. Something tells me that they were not contained within the strictures of history in the way that we are in our civilisation. Apparently, these paintings were meant as a communication into the future, otherwise someone 5,000 years later would not have over-painted and completed some of the original pictures.

Dazed Digital That’s a form of communication we can’t really grasp, dreamtime perhaps…
Werner Herzog: That’s a highly complex concept. It is something that is way beyond our comprehension and we should be cautious to make solid statements. We have not lived in a stone-age culture but Aborigines, until maybe 150 years ago, still lived in that culture. If we contacted them and tried to figure out what they did with their cave paintings, and what motivated them, it may give us some hints.

Dazed Digital: You shoot the albino crocodiles nearby to illustrate the idea of how meaning is completely lost when there is a vast abyss of time separating species and civilisations. Why did you use them as a metaphor?
Werner Herzog: The film is going completely wild in the form of a science-fiction fantasy with the crocodiles! But, of course, we do not know how twenty generations from now, our great great, great grandchildren will see our civiliaation. And how would the crocodiles see it? They are not far away from the caves, thriving in an ever-expanding, steaming, tropical biosphere [fuelled by heat from a nearby nuclear power station]. Wild as the science-fiction fantasy may sound, reality has overtaken it. A few months ago six crocodiles escaped the biosphere. There was a huge hunt out for them, which included helicopters. (Laughs) They re-captured five and one is still at large.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is out today