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Kauffmann: Werner Herzog Goes Back Into the Cave

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Sundance Selects

New Yorker Films

A Screaming Man
Film Movement

He took a mouthful of colored liquid. He put his palm on the great rock. Then he sprayed his hand with the liquid in his mouth and left the hand’s outline on the rock. And there I saw it, seventeen thousand years later.

It was in the prehistoric Lascaux cave in south-central France, back in the last century, when visitors were allowed. All around me were overwhelming paintings of animals, paintings almost frightening in both their quality and their age. This man’s hand, however, was the first human element that I saw in the cave, and I felt that my ancestor had put it there in the hope that some day—some eon—I would find it. I almost murmured thanks.

Now Lascaux is closed: human breathing and so forth was having a deleterious effect on the paintings. But in 1994 another prehistoric cave almost twice as old as Lascaux was found at Chauvet—another huge gallery of art preserved through oceanic centuries by a rockslide that had sealed the place airtight. The French government has been very careful of Chauvet: only a staff of scientists is admitted. Ever since 1994 film-makers have been petitioning for the chance to record the paintings. In 2010 Werner Herzog was at last granted permission, under very strict rules, and he has made Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Herzog has been markedly individual all his life. Most of his earlier work was provocative fiction—such as Aguirre: The Wrath of God and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Lately he has been making documentaries all over the world, seeking the strange or revelatory or minatory. It hardly surprises that he is passionate about prehistoric art. When I learned that he had gained permission to access Chauvet, I felt buoyed by memories of Lascaux and rejoiced. Rejoicing continues.

Around 45,000 years ago, we are told, Europe was covered by a gigantic glacier. After it disappeared, the continent was inhabited by herds of animals—bears, lions, horses, rhinoceri, and antelope among them—and Paleolithic man. Within a relatively few thousand years, man apparently began to feel some sort of victory over the animals, along with some admiration, as the paintings suggest. He wanted to celebrate. But why did he begin to paint?

Every culture has some sort of art in its beginnings, jugs or fans or drums, but most of them are—relative to Chauvet—recent. Why, so dizzyingly long ago, did man paint? Scholars have been studying the matter for centuries, but anyone who sees Herzog’s film is sure to be struck by something additionally odd and exhilarating: beauty. Why are these paintings beautiful? Man wanted to record his continuing victories, yes, but where and how did the concept of beauty, the need for it, the criteria, come from?

Look at the group of four horses’ heads in profile that Herzog shows us. They are subtly arranged and viewed. Look at the two bison-like animals fighting head to head, their bodies charged with power. More: all these animals and others are exquisitely painted, not just in shape but in shadings of pastellike colors. Where did the ambition, the skill, come from? Why were these activities cultivated? Were there people in those communities of hunters who spent their lives as artists? Some of the animals are even done with relatively few strokes of the brush (or whatever it was), reminiscent of the way that Picasso carved a creature out of space with a few strokes. (Picasso is mentioned in the voice-over.) It is staggering to think that a twentieth-century genius was many millennia late.

Herzog wrote the voice-over and speaks it, almost humbly. His directing is rightly plain except for a few strokes when he tries to “cinematize” his story. (Some comments on shadows bring on a clip of a Fred Astaire shadow dance.) Mostly, he just lets us see what we want to see—the paintings themselves, interspersed with interviews of men and women who are scientists at work there. These people conduct tours of the cave to show us, among other things, a huge stone female figure, a crude shrine, preserved bear tracks. (There is also a curious adjunct, a visit to the prehistoric objects at the University of Tübingen in Germany.) The score that is laid on is occasionally heavy, like “magic” music in a picture full of special effects. A reticent score would have helped more. But, as he gives us a final tour of the paintings in close-up, we can only feel grateful to Herzog for the visit.

And he adds a postscript. He shows us that twenty miles away from Chauvet is a nuclear energy plant.

Another postscript. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is being released in two formats, 3D and 2D. I was unable to see the 3D version, but considering the subject of the film, I did not feel handicapped. The very fact that Herzog is presenting the film in both versions signifies that the third dimension is not, to the director himself, essential. The essentials for this film were supplied some time ago.

Did George Eliot begin it? Was Silas Marner the first account of how the arrival of an unexpected child in the life of a grim man changed him? The cuddly idea has resurged from time to time, though probably not as often as some other sweetmeats. Still, it’s the sort of idea that makes us feel we have seen it a lot even if we haven’t.

For this very reason, its latest appearance is remarkable. Eliot would have raised an eyebrow. Two Peruvian brothers, Daniel and Diego Vega, experienced film-makers, have taken this heart-warmer plot and put it in the most dissonant of settings. With something like cool humor the Vegas have plumped this baby into the midst of a low level of Lima life, almost as if to snap their fingers at our rosy expectations and to slip a grain of verity into a feel-good story.

Clemente, the protagonist of Octubre, is a small-time money-lender, fortyish, single, tough, taciturn. He is one of the least inflected persons we would likely see in a film: whatever the moment, firm or angry or skeptical or pleased, Clemente changes very little to the eye and ear, even though we know he feels otherwise. One day he comes home to his shabby apartment after a visit to one of his regular hookers. (She is a friendly soul, middle-aged, pudgy, and doesn’t put on her glasses until he leaves.) In his apartment he finds a swaddled infant—a girl—and Clemente suspects at once how the child got there. She was left by another hooker with whom he had fathered her.

Most of the film deals with his attempts to find the mother, who has moved somewhere, and to get nursemaid help from his neighbor Sofia, middle-aged and warm. The first element takes Clemente into various strata of Lima sludge; with the second, a sense of accompaniment grows almost imperceptibly.

Clemente gets no grand closing radiance. This is underscored by the way the Vegas have handled those last moments. October, we learn during the film, is a particularly hallowed month in the Peruvian church, and in that last sequence Clemente finds himself in the middle of a huge religious procession. But he is merely looking for Sofia. The directors’ point is precisely that this is not Clemente’s heaven-sent moment of spiritual enlightenment. The splendid religious ambience does not have any trace of effect on him. He is simply trapped in a crowd while searching for someone.

This double daring—the harsh setting for the soft story, the absolute dismissal of ultimate hosanna—gives the film a dry ultra-mod air. Bruno Odar embodies Clemente perfectly, a man who guards his feelings as carefully as his money. Even at the end Clemente seems to be moving matters into his usual range instead of changing drastically. The Vega brothers have had devilish fun with an angelically pink old theme.

A film from Chad affords a different sort of contrast. An account of several kinds of modern travail, which could have been brought close and hot, is seen at a small distance—moving but narrated rather than dramatized. There are virtually no close-ups in the picture, which is grievously mistitled as A Screaming Man. That title is a phrase from a poem quoted at the end, but, applied here, it is like putting the title Mortality on Kurosawa’s masterwork To Live. There is screaming in this film, but most of it is silent.

At first we see a gray-haired man and a young man playing around in a swimming pool. The older man is Adam, who is in charge of this pool in a luxe Chad hotel. The young man is Abdel, his son, who also works around the pool. Adam, who was once a swimming champion and is called Champ, has been in this pool job for years, loves it, is proud of his position. His son is somewhat less orthodox.

One day Adam is called in to the office and is told that he is beloved and valuable but that he is getting old. The management thinks that he should move out of the pool job to become a (relatively lesser) gatekeeper. Immediately we scent a reference to Murnau’s The Last Laugh, and we already have seen enough to know that this director—Mahamat-Saleh Haroun—is film-wise. An extra sting here is that Abdel is to replace Adam at the pool, which the son neither knew nor planned. It is not only the move from the pool that bothers Adam: it is the knowledge that his son may not keep the job as burnished as he did.

This strained situation is soon solved cruelly. Chad is being torn apart by rebels. An army is needed to oppose them, and Abdel is drafted—dragged away, rather. He is physically hauled off. Adam is moved back to his pool job by harsh facts. Soon Abdel’s girlfriend Djeneba, whom Adam and his wife have never before met, visits and tells them-after we have guessed it—that she is pregnant. They welcome her and house her. Soon Adam has to go visit Abdel in an army hospital. Then comes a finish that is both event and metaphor.

While we watch this rhythmically measured story, a kind of synesthesia takes over. We feel that we are listening to a folk song as we watch a film. Some of this effect comes from Haroun’s almost bardic style. Since there are very few close shots, we see the figures moving through as if they were being talked about. Much of this effect comes from Youssoff Djaoro, who gives Adam quiet epic dignity. Tall, lithe, proud but civilly so, Adam in Djaoro’s hands becomes someone we miss when he is off screen (which luckily isn’t often) and who comes to seem prototypical.

Haroun, who both wrote and directed, is Chad-born and has himself been dangerously involved in its troubles. He has nonetheless managed to carry on his film career and has won prizes at Venice and Cannes. (His own life seems to mirror the double contest—war and work—of his picture.) It takes composure as well as talent to make a film of such heated moment with the near-contemplative nature of, in visual terms, a ballad.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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