I can’t recommend enough The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary by Werner Herzog about a cave full of paintings from the Paleolithic period discovered recently in France. These paintings are the oldest found cave paintings, and the film offers the great gift of letting you feel like you are among the privileged few to witness them in all their grandeur. The film was only recently in theaters, displayed in 3D. Last week, it became available for streaming on Netflix.
The film is wonderful, quiet, and profound. Given the gravity of his subject, Herzog is able to dive deeply into profound questions without becoming pretentious or pedantic. He is able to explore paradoxes without seeming slight or evasive. It is surprising how much we can know about these paintings, and it is also surprising how vastly mysterious they remain given all that we can know. The cave, and its paintings are a powerful, grave time capsule of communication from tens of thousands of years ago, and yet they are are in a geologically fragile state of deterioration now that they have been opened ever so slightly to the outside air.
For the scientists and artists that enter these caves, it is an honor and a rapturous wonder to enter these caves, and yet each person confesses to a sense of relief at being able to finally exit back out into the light. They are pulled into the dark and find that they need time away to gain perspective. This sense of wonder and awe and holy fear is contagious. This movie draws you in so that you can feel the presence of the cave in your breathing and in your gut. How often do we get the chance to be so humbled by a place that you can only respond with silent submission?
Paintings in this cave exist side-by-side, communicating with one another, and yet it has been determined that some of them were made thousands of years apart. The contents of the cave are as fascinating as the techniques the artists and scientists use to try and comprehend them many thousands of years later. And even this film–this is a work of art– is no small part of the conversation that is tens of thousands of years in the running.