The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues
MAY 2011 Issue

On Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams

We should perhaps re-read A Season in Hell before entering the Chauvet cave. “Find the place and the phrase.” We have found the place. The phrase escapes us. This art is all contradiction. I was led to this cave… There is no leaving it.1

These are lines from a remarkable piece by Jean-Marc Elalouf, a French Atomic Energy Commission DNA specialist, who is currently identifying the genomes of the remains at the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in Southern France. Hermetically sealed for 20,000 years by a fallen rock face until its discovery in 1994, Grotte Chauvet houses the oldest known cave art. Its 32,000 year old paintings of horses, bison, lions, panthers, bears, owls, hyenas, and rhinos, as well as abstract symbols and red handprints, exhibit extraordinary skill, dynamism, and compositional complexity.

Filmed in 3-D, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams gives a rare glimpse of this pristinely preserved marvel. The film features renowned prehistorian Jean Clottes, who introduces the compelling notion that the “Paleolithic world was suffused with fluidity and permeability…There were no barriers between…man and wall…a wall can accept or refuse us.”

What was “wall” for small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers, surrounded by throngs of ferocious animals, during the Ice Age? In Brooklyn 2011, sheetrock refuses the strangers that share our bedroom walls, bathroom stalls, office cubicles, sites of our hidden artifacts and ritual acts.

“The sun—that’s important,” says Herzog, describing the Upper Paleolithic’s dry, frigid, luminous climate. They sought out the darkest recesses for their images, like whispering a secret into the hole of a tree. Were they afraid? Did they encounter hibernating cave bears, the Cyclops, Injun Joe? Were their images intended for illumination or concealment?

Jean-Marc Elalouf:

The people who came here 25,000 or 32,000 years ago knew about us what we don’t know about them. Their art remained hidden for a long time… I think of Cain asking to be confined: is this not a question of expulsing and burying astonishing visions? The reddened hands rid themselves of the crime.2

Perhaps the wall of Chauvet is the screen of a confessional. When the cave painters—modern Homo Sapiens—arrived in Europe, they encountered Neanderthals who’d been around for at least 150,000 years. They lived in close proximity until the Neanderthals disappeared, around 30,000 years ago, about the time the paintings at Chauvet were made. Why did they disappear while our species endured?

Chauvet’s animals emerge from densely textured, wildly undulating walls, the result of an astonishingly sophisticated “immersive” art form. For Herzog there was “no choice” but to use our most advanced immersive technology, 3-D film. His use of 3-D does conjure an enhanced sense of contoured depth and claustrophobia, but for me, it is effective precisely because of its inability to create a perceptually convincing spatial immersion. For much of the film, the 3-D was disorienting, even distracting, yet it inadvertently created a potent alienation effect. My constant awareness of the medium suggested how radically different my own perceptual framework must be from that of the prehistoric painters. Wearing bulky goggles over my glasses underscored my distance from the cave’s vivid reality; I will never really “see” these paintings. Continually reminded of the extent to which our contemporary experience is mediated by screens, the power of these earliest gestures of image projection became all the more resonant. The wall refuses us.

Unable to diverge from the narrow pathway allowed for the crew, Herzog’s cinematographer rigs a stick cam to access a conical rock protruding from the ceiling of Chauvet’s remotest chamber. It displays the exaggerated pubic triangle and legs of a woman merged with a standing man-bison hybrid creature; they share a leg, and the bison’s eye is where her navel would be. This stunningly evocative figure reflects Jean Clottes’s idea of “fluidity and permeability,” a world in which “there were no barriers between man and animal.”

This idea of a co-transfusive animal/human relationship is confounded by a momentous absence: among the legions of sensitively rendered horse snouts and bison eyes in Chauvet, not one human face can be found. The few human figures that appear in similar caves are crude caricatures.

In 2002, John Berger was one of the first people to visit Chauvet. He made a film, and wrote about the experience:

“The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world… Beyond every horizon were more animals.”3

Perhaps this glaring lack of human figuration is related to the marginal status of humans that Berger alludes to.

For Marxist art historian Max Raphael, in his “Prehistoric Cave Paintings,” the hand held special significance for Paleolithic people: “the animal was the measure of all things, but only through the intermediary of the human hand.” For Raphael, the cave paintings seem so familiar to us because their creators “lived in a unique historical situation and are a great spiritual symbol: for they date from a period when man had just emerged from a purely zoological existence, when instead of being dominated by animals, he began to dominate them.”4

Among Chauvet’s beast-laden panoramas, there also exist numerous stencils of hands. They attest to a graphic sophistication, as red ochre was blown around the maker’s hand pressed to the wall, revealing the hand as negative space.

For Clottes: “Under the power of the sacred paint, the hand would metaphorically vanish into the wall . . . concretely link[ing] its owner to the world of the spirits.”5

For me, these hands evoke numerous other speculations. The texture of the rock gives the hand a fleshly appearance. How was “red” coded for them? A hand dipped in a pool of blood. But also, a hand clearly delineated, as if transcending the time-bound world of flesh and meat, to identify with the seeming eternity of stone.

Could these hands be signs of domination, exalting the human ability to literally draw an image out from the wall?

These hands are arresting. Are they red flags? Their negative space implies dematerialization, absorption, as if making contact with something so powerful that the self vaporizes leaving only a trace of its disappearance. Are they auguries of ecstatic transport, or warnings against human hubris?

On August 6, 1945, a woman sat on the steps of the Sumitomo Bank in Hiroshima. The rays from the atomic blast bleached out the bank’s steps and wall around the outline of her body, creating a reverse “shadow.” A scene from The Atom Strikes (1948, US Department of Defense) shows “atomic shadows” on the Yorozuyo Bridge, one belonging to “a pedestrian” whose silhouette a U.S. military man bends down to trace in chalk.

Berger: “For nomads the notion of past and future is perhaps subservient to the experience of elsewhere. Something that has gone, or is awaited, is hidden elsewhere…What has vanished has gone into hiding.”

Of the painters, Herzog said he “felt their eyes upon us,” echoing cave-discoverer Jean-Marie Chauvet: “Time was abolished…We thought we could feel their presence; we were disturbing them.”6

Whether or not we assign them a supernatural function, the cave walls do posses an undeniable power, the power of record. Sealed off for 20,000 years, the walls refused us.

Berger: “These rock paintings were made where they were so that they might exist in the dark. They were hidden in the dark so that what they embodied would outlast everything visible and promise, perhaps, survival.”7

Archaeological excavation inevitably destroys its site, and radiocarbon dating requires burning up a piece of the artifact. Exposing the Lascaux paintings to electric lights, and the body heat and breath of visitors, caused them to mold. Lascaux was closed to the public in 1963, and tourists now flock to “Lascaux II.” A “theme park”, as Herzog calls it, of Chauvet is planned as well.

In 1971, the Hiroshima branch of the Sumitomo Bank, and its “atomic shadow” of the woman who sat on its steps, was torn down, the steps retained in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Yomutora Bridge, however, was demolished, only a plaque with the famous photograph of its adumbrations commemorates.

After surviving two French internment camps, Max Raphael came to New York and ultimately committed suicide in 1952. Writing in 1945, he saw the prehistoric struggle for “emancipation from the animal state,” as mirroring his own contemporary struggle as a Marxist and a Jew:

The paintings remind us that our present subjection to forces other than nature is purely transitory, these works are a symbol of our future freedom. Today, mankind… is striving for a future in the eyes of which all our history will sink to the level of “prehistory.”8

From Aguirre on the raft overrun with monkeys, to Timothy Treadwell being eaten by his beloved bear, human folly in the face of relentless nature is a key obsession of Herzog’s. I love the scene from Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams of Herzog in the jungle, hilariously macabre, surrounded by snakes, frogs, lizards:

We are challenging nature and… it is much stronger than we are. Nature here is vile and base… Fornication and asphyxiation and fighting for survival and growing… The harmony of overwhelming, collective murder. And we, in comparison to the articulate… obscenity of this jungle, we only sound…like half finished sentences out of a stupid suburban cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this… But… I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it… I love it very much, but I love it against my better judgment.9

In one of Cave’s most “Herzogian” moments (of which, alas, there are too few), we cut from Chauvet to Fred Astaire dancing with his shadow, while Herzog speculates as to whether the painters danced with the shadows given off by their flickering torches.

I am struck by how Chauvet’s imaged animals float outside of time and space, abstracted from ground, vegetation, weapons, stars, dwellings. The artist enters a dark, womb-like cavern, lights a fire, and performs generative acts.

Ira Konigsberg, in his “Cave Paintings and the Cinema,” mounts a psychoanalytic investigation of the originary cinematic impulse. Image-making may have been a way for “the cave painters to defend against a detached and threatening external reality by reshaping it and then internalizing it … [creating a] world controlled by the powers of the imagination and the mind itself.”10

With little knowledge of cave art, I was surprised to see that the animals were not depicted as being hunted. Indeed, it occurs to me that imaging an animal, seizing, mentally imbibing, and reconfiguring its body, its context, its dimensionality, and projecting it, is an act of objectification infinitely more powerful than killing or eating it. The wall accepts us.

In Chauvet there is an image of a rhino with multiple horns, reminiscent of Italian Futurism. Herzog suggests that this may be a kind of “proto-cinema.”

Imposing the illusion of movement—whether onto a wall or onto a series of still frames­­­—is nothing less than a desire to galvanize the inanimate, one that predates Frankenstein.

And one that produces, perhaps, an unease.

Why are there no human figures in the caves?

The paintings seem to manifest a dawning cognizance of self as animal, and as simultaneously something other than animal. A nascent awareness of increasing influence, perhaps a presentiment of ascendancy (over other members of our Homo genus as well as over other animals). Did this produce a coeval sense of triumph as well as dread? Perhaps these images, despite such a great temporal chasm, resonate so strongly with us today, because they reflect a dual and conflicted nature. What Chauvet announces, may be a quality that largely defines our contemporary psyche.

For Herzog, Chauvet reveals the “birth of the modern human soul.” However, underneath the illustriousness of our cultural feats, the atavistic pull of our reptilian brain ever lurks, furtive and vermicular. Herzog delights in reminding us of this; his oeuvre is replete with reptile cameos: the monitor lizard specialist in Fata Morgana; the teeming herpetological menageries of The White Diamond, Aguirre, and Fitzcarraldo; Rescue Dawn’s Dieter biting into a snake; Herzog himself hunting for the Loch Ness monster; Kaspar Hauser’s wondrous “I would ask him if he is a tree frog;” and of course, the trippily riotous singing iguanas in Bad Lieutenant. One could argue that Klaus Kinski himself is a reptile stand-in—and not just in his last role with Herzog as the vicious Cobra Verde.

Cave has its own audacious reptile moment. Fresh off our cavernous resplendence, we are whimsically planted face-to-face with a scaly interlocutor. About 20 miles from Chauvet, the jungly biosphere of a huge greenhouse is heated by channeling warm water from a nuclear power plant. In the water float what Herzog describes as two mutant radioactive albino crocodiles. As these ivory “dopplegangers” stare transfixed by each other’s gazes, our Bavarian jester asks, “Are we truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?” Several crocodiles apparently escaped the greenhouse, with one still loose in the French countryside. Herzog imagines it reaching Chauvet: “What would [it] think of the paintings?”

In an interview Herzog declares that the crocs’ mutant radioactivity is “pure science fiction, but of course related to the film. How do we see images that were made 32,000 years ago? How would an albino crocodile see images by human beings?”11

My viewing of Cave was infused with the concurrently unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan. In a recent interview Herzog said that he wished he were filming in Japan, that what’s happening is like something “straight from science-fiction.” He also said: “It doesn’t worry me that dinosaurs disappeared, the human race will too, the universe couldn’t care less.”12

Loosed radioactive crocodiles evoke their irradiated reptile kin, Godzilla. Born in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forced out of his cave by nuclear tests and made monstrous by radiation, he is the shadow twin of the prehistoric bison revered at Chauvet. Given the history of bison in the U.S., the two of them would probably have a few things to talk about. In this sci-fi movie, the two creatures meet and are supposed to have a showdown; instead, they look at each other, hesitate, then turn tail, shedding the burdensome mythological symbolism that humans have imposed upon them.

Chauvet may illuminate our earliest gestures of image-making, acts that may have been as essential to and characteristic of prehistoric humans as they are to us. For Herzog, it is impossible to exaggerate the stakes:

I have often spoken of what I call the inadequate imagery of today’s civilization. . . . The images that surround us today are worn out; they are abused and useless and exhausted. . . . There is something dangerous emerging here. We comprehend . . . that nuclear power is a real danger for mankind, . . . that the destruction of the environment is another enormous danger. But I truly believe that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude. . . . If we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs.13


  1. Jean-Marc Elalouf, “Nomad’s Land,”
  2. Ibid.
  3. John Berger, Here is Where We Meet. Random House Digital, Inc., 2006. These passages are also excerpted in the article “Past Present” in The Guardian, Saturday 12 October 2002:
  4. Max Raphael, Prehistoric Cave Paintings. New York: Pantheon Books, 1945, quoted in The Cave Painters, Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists, Gregory Curtis, Anchor Books/Random House, Inc., 2006.
  5. Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
  6. Tim Cumming, “The Art on the Cave Walls at Chauvet Continues to Thrill” in The National, December 27, 2010, posted at:
  7. Berger, Here is Where We Meet.
  8. Raphael, Prehistoric Cave Paintings.
  9. Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog, Macmillan, 2002.
  10. Ira Koningsburg, “Cave Paintings and the Cinema” in Wide Angle 18.2, 1996, 7-33; (1996 Ohio University School of Film).
  11. Herzog interview with BFI, Sight & Sound:
  12. From a presentation by Herzog for Intelligence Squared, at Cadogan Hall, London, March 23, 2011:
  13. Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog.


Marianne Shaneen

MARIANNE SHANEEN is a writer, filmmaker, and longtime Brooklyn resident. She is currently finishing her first feature documentary, American Furry: Life, Liberty and the Fursuit of Happiness (produced by Brooklyn’s Parts and Labor), about “Humanimals” or people with animal ‘fursonas,’ and an epistolary novel on dead letters and medieval optics entitled The Peekaboo “Theory.”


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2011

All Issues