by James Hansen
What is it exactly that is being forgotten in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams? Following his recent line of “nature documentaries” (Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World), Herzog locates a strange, uninhabitable place in which he finds traces of unique humanity. Crucial is the idea of forgetfulness which is more present in Cave than the prior documentaries. And it is easy to forget. The humanity in the caves has been temporally displaced by 35,000 years and is, in some sense, unrecoverable.
Scientists and archaeologists speak with educated hypotheses. Herzog uses this model to grant himself leeway to make many of his boldest claims. Are these caves and cave paintings signs of the foundation of the modern human soul? Are the figures in the painting calling out to the present? Art lovers should find this of inherent interest, as art is the thing that crosses the void of time and space between the present day researchers and the mythic man with the crooked pinky finger who has forever left his mark on the cave walls.
Here, we may find the strongest link between Cave and Grizzly Man. If Timothy Treadwell used video and documentary to create a endless archive of his experiences with the grizzlies (and, perhaps, as Seung-Hoon Jeong and Dudley Andrew argue, it becomes a vision of man becoming-animal), history is written not in video, but on the cave walls – the nature of man inscribed in nature itself. What then of animals? Although there are exceptions which Herzog seems more drawn to in Cave, the majority of the paintings are of animals: skulls and ancient footsteps of wolves cover the ground of the caves. The paintings indicate a deep connection and fascination with animals – their movement, shape, and sounds. Is this a sign of a model of the world that Timothy Treadwell dreamed of? Was everything united? And would a permeable conception of history reestablish this supposedly utopian vision?
What can’t be overlooked in this equation, however, is Herzog. To some extent, Cave lets the caves speak for themselves. There are countless, stand-alone images of the paintings calling out to the audience (and in 3D no less!) Still, Herzog – as The Modern Man – plays an essential role. He not only writes Cave’s narrative, carrying with it his oftentimes tiresome, sometimes engaging, musings on art. In his attempts to recover the origin of man, companied with Cave’s mutant coda and a remembrance of Grizzly Man, Herzog brings in a new dose of old modernism. Given its failures, Herzog attempts to overcome this modernist gap. Cave won’t let us forget how rare an opportunity it is for the cave’s to be recorded. This is the last chance for them to be filmed, seen, experienced, and recovered. With Cave, Herzog reenacts Treadwell’s archival process as a means of capturing this fleeting place, space, and moment – a moment when recovery and origin appear possible.
Nonetheless, Herzog, in his brief coda, wipes out the aura crafted throughout Cave and turns us again toward a rehash Grizzly Man. Power plants suggest a transformation of humanity into contemporary mutants. If Grizzly Man captures a uniquely modern encounter with the violence of nature, then perhaps this is what is being forgotten – or, at least, what has changed. As humanities bond with nature has broken down, violence overtakes both nature and man. The violence of nature cedes to a nature of violence. Humanity has forgotten nature and, in so doing, has transmuted into a version of our own forgotten selves.
Yet even if the caves call to us from the past, Herzog wags his finger at the audience for not listening to them and puts himself in the place to be the man who hears. The power is placed in the creator and crafter of all images, whether an ancient man, Timothy Treadwell, or Werner Herzog. Herzog’s call for permeable history and interaction with the paintings, however, splits from this sense of grand arbiters of humanity. Is democratic, unified humanity to be celebrated by the trumpeting of a single man? Herzog interjects himself into the caves (and into his movie) too far and runs counter to his own method. It nearly becomes the mark of a man who came, saw, recorded, and went, leaving claw marks instead of bread crumbs on the way from the darkness of caves into the bright light of nature. When the researchers asked for silence to let the caves speak for themselves, it might have been best for Herzog to turn down the megaphone.