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Originally published May 5, 2011 at 4:53 PM | Page modified May 7, 2011 at 5:41 PM

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Movie review

'Cave of Forgotten Dreams': Werner Herzog's priceless look at 32,000-year-old art

A movie review of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," Werner Herzog's fantastic documentary about the earliest-known, Paleolithic-era cave art, is stunning in its artistic and historic revelations.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

'Cave of Forgotten Dreams,' a documentary written and directed by Werner Herzog (inspired by a New Yorker article by Judith Thurman). 90 minutes. Rated G. Meridian, Lincoln Square.

quotes Herzog is an obsessive filmaker who treats his subjects with unmatched reverence and... Read more

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Discovered in 1994, Chauvet Cave in southwest France — the subject of Werner Herzog's electrifying, beautiful and technically remarkable 3D documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" — is full of the earliest, Paleolithic-era cave art yet found.

The walls are covered in 32,000-year-old, surprisingly expressive and sophisticated charcoal paintings by Cro-Magnon artists of animal species abundant in Western Europe during the last Ice Age. We see rhinoceros, lions (the paintings, one scientist tells Herzog, answer an old puzzle about whether male lions back then had manes — apparently, they didn't), cattle, reindeer and horses.

There are many more diverse images that Herzog's specially rigged camera can't reach due to the vast cave's extremely fragile ecology. The legendary filmmaker ("Aguirre, the Wrath of God," "Grizzly Man"), who emerged during the New German Cinema movement, was confined (with his crew) to a narrow walkway in order to protect surrounding bones, markings and well-preserved tracks of cave bears and early humans.

Still, Herzog dazzles with footage that doesn't just give us flat highlights of some ancient gallery or possible holy place (the setting of a bear skull on a large rock suggests an altar). That 3D depth reveals how the cave's features were part of the painters' medium. Where a wall undulates, for instance, so do certain paintings that — in contemporary parlance — pop.

Herzog's mystical questions about Cro-Magnon existential awareness and whether their dreams are part of our collective memory are provocative and even endearing. The fact that Herzog asks them with an element of mischievousness (there's a famous clip of Fred Astaire in "Cave" used to wry but knowing effect) somehow makes his reverence stronger.

Herzog is known for creating movies about humans — some of them obsessed or delusional — in extreme environments and situations. But his intent always has been to make those people and environments seem less remote, more familiar to our common nature no matter the subject.

That's what we get from this film: a specific and personal sense that 32,000-year-old artists, with all their ideas and passions, were not, fundamentally, that different from us.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

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