What are the chances that someone could make a compelling movie about 30,000-year old rock art? Incredibly, Werner Herzog pulls it off with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I saw this weekend on the big screen.
The archaeologists in the movie are terrific, and Herzog does a nice job answering all the basic questions a general audience are likely to have about this extraordinary cave in the south of France. Like some reviewers, I found the musical score distracting at times. Also, the ending (which has nothing to do with the cave) is bizzare and factually incorrect. But these are two minor qualms that don't detract from the movie's excellence. Here's an excerpt from a recent interview that Herzog did with Archaeology magazine: ARCHAEOLOGY: You've talked about how culture conditions the way we interpret images. Have we lost something between the modern day and the time of Chauvet? HERZOG: No, not lost. We simply have changed. We are fundamentally changed and yet there is something about humanness, there is something about the modern human soul, which awakened during the time of Chauvet, or maybe a little bit earlier, we don't know. ARCHAEOLOGY: What is your definition of humanness? HERZOG: I think as Jean-Michel Geneste says, it is an adaptation to the world, language, symbolic representations, including rituals like burial, like probably cannibalism, initiation rites. There is a point where we shift away from a purely material culture. ARCHAEOLOGY: Do you feel the story that science is telling of Chauvet Cave is inadequate in some way? HERZOG: No, its not inadequate, and I'm glad that it does not proclaim to have a full explanation. There is a younger generation of archaeologists at work who are very much into declaring the findings as they are and not over-interpreting them. Everything in the previous generations was declared ritualistic and part of ceremonies and the young generation says "maybe, but we do not know." I find it a healthy attitude. It will certainly be the school of archaeology that will prevail in the foreseeable future.