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In Pursuit of the Flesh

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

EssayPart of Issue #14: In Absentia

Both in his documentary and fictional works, Werner Herzog is drawn to capturing the human condition in extreme situations: through wars, plane crashes, jungles, bear attacks, artificial intelligence, and the forces of nature. Relating his themes to memory, dreams, and feelings Herzog uses his iconic narrator’s voice to ask questions that catch his subjects off guard on the camera, or elicit curious remarks that guide the viewer to see something not shown on the surface of the image. But in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), the extremities of his vision go beyond time and memory. In this documentary, Herzog travels into the depth of Chauvet Cave in Southern France, a paleolithic cave discovered in 1994 that contains some of the oldest cave drawings in the world, dating back to between 28 000 and 37 000 years ago. He invites scientists (who have examined the drawings and other paleolithic remains) to share their versions of what happened in the cave. Yet the past remains out of their hands, which poses the question: what resides in this absence of memory? In this film, Herzog speculates instead of answering. The viewer, in turn, speculates on how to read history beyond citing only facts and findings. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in its structure, seeks to understand humans and their interactions with the remains of the past. This act helps us look back in time: to examine the ties between the flesh of the present and that of the past, and to recover what memory could not on its own.

In the beginning of the film, Herzog and his team visit the cave with the purpose of both producing new images as well as recreating the rituals performed in the cave. The camera is a modern alternative to charcoal and pigments to figuratively engrave one’s name in time, to stop us from forgetting. The process of creating an image becomes a part of the image itself: the spatial lineaments inside the cave do not leave much room for the crew to fall off the frame. The camera clumsily climbs down the stairs, sometimes shaky and unfocused, shuffled through makeshift passageways. In one shot, a crew member appears holding a boom mic covered with its soft wind protector, out of place in the middle of a prehistoric site. Another crew member needs to signal the start of a sound recording, but without a clapper and with his hands full, he places the flashlight in his mouth to shine a white light straight into the camera while we hear a clapping sound—it’s action time, nine minutes into the film.

In the darkness of the cave, lighting directs the camera’s view. The light functions as a framing device, and the surfaces it leaves dark, escape our sight. In their first visit to the cave, the scientists and the film crew hold their own flashlights, moving around and focusing on different things, conjuring a dynamic play of lights and shadows on the cave drawings. Through his narration, Herzog envisions this image as illuminations from the past: the dance of torch fires, projecting an illusion of movement, as if the animals were coming alive. Movements are emphasized by the act of drawing itself, as pointed out by Herzog and the archaeologists, which shows some of the animals drawn with eight legs and moving in herds.

These are interpretations of what remains; they are all we have. Artifacts become what they are through the disappearance of their contexts. Their existence can be perplexing, awkwardly perched in the middle of our fast-paced civilization. Archaeology strives to decipher the context by seeing beyond the visible. Herzog walks us through this endeavor, answering questions to do with the age of the drawings, the climate in that era, the role of the cave in people’s lives, before delving into more abstract questions about their worldviews and beliefs. Most questions are answered by talking head interviews with the scientists and through visual aids, explaining the science, technology and philosophy behind their analysis.

Yet, Herzog seeks what cannot be answered in numbers: did the people in the caves dream? How do we understand this question? No form of consciousness and no witnesses could have survived those 30,000 years; there are no collective memories except those ingrained on the cave walls. This question calls for the unretrievable, like a flesh decaying away from one’s body, leaving behind only the bones. We only know so much of the remnants, but what the flesh had touched and sensed is gone forever. Here, I borrow from Rebecca Schneider’s idea about the human fascination towards remains, what she framed as the archive logic. Schneider writes:

According to archive logic, flesh is given to be that which slips away. According to archive logic, flesh can house no memory of bone. In the archive, only bone speaks the memory of flesh. Flesh is a blind spot.Rebecca Schneider, ‘Performance Remains Again’, in Archaeologies of Presence (2012) ed. by Gabriella Giannachi, Nick Kaye, Michael Shanks.

According to Schneider, the archive identifies with the regime of the Father in deciding the arche or the origin of things. The archive is all that is written, recorded, and thus rules our lives. Reading an archive is always to ask, what does this mean? Who are the figures, and how do they change the course of history?

By asking the question of dreams, Herzog reverses this archival logic: when the bone cannot speak for the silence of the flesh, where else should we look for the answer? Perhaps in our own dreams, as an interview in the film reveals. Julian Monney, an archaeologist, speaks about the research intention to create stories about the past; meanwhile, Herzog’s raspy voice behind the camera directs the conversation towards Monney’s own background. It turns out he had previously been a circus performer and when telling the viewer about his first encounter with the cave drawings, Monney shares it had been so intense that, at night, he started dreaming of lions.

In pursuit of the flesh, the film veers into other attempts to reconcile the prehistoric past through the body. Wulf Hein, explained by the text onscreen as an “experimental archaeologist”, appears in a full reindeer skin attire, emulating how Ice Age people dressed in the glacial climate. After presenting a duplicate of a flute made of vulture bone, he performs a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. We also meet Maurice Marin, the master perfumer, who is seen creeping along the outer cave walls, sniffing the rocks to detect a distinctive cavernous scent, unfortunately to no avail. Jean-Michel Geneste, the director of Chauvet Cave, throws a replica spear, with great difficulty, in a barren field. Herzog narrates drily: “His efforts may not look so convincing, but this is a powerful weapon.” It is an amusing sight in a film that takes on a grand subject—the history of humankind—but it is also a decisive moment to declare that humans, too, can access history through their bodies.

To understand how humans of the past might have related to the cave, the film presents a story of an Aboriginal person who amended rock paintings according to his tradition. When the ethnographer asks him to explain his reasons, the man answers: “I am not painting. It’s the hand of the spirit who is painting now.” What if the archaeologists and the scientists are not the only ones with the right to impose their interpretations on these artifacts? The Aboriginal man’s way of responding to the painting—of nurturing it and respecting his ancestors—can be another attempt to fill in the absence of memories, according to their own methods, knowledge and beliefs. This scene can be striking to the viewer in the way Herzog chooses to frame this event. If we see the remains in relation to other bodies, they resist being read as a dead monument. On the contrary, they become a performative object or even a phenomenon, which activates its surroundings and in turn incites people to respond and build new relations to it. Perhaps, these are ways to reach inside the black hole of our past: using our hands, our bodies, and our actions.

What escapes our memory reappears in our muscles, the way we unconsciously preserve insights of our past in new rituals and repetitions. Chauvet Cave is certainly not the last time animals have been used as inspiration to conduct the study of movements. The herds of horses drawn on the cave walls might remind us of the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, another important invention in human civilization where illusions of movements were produced through a sequence of still images. These innovations were a stepping stone for cinema as we know it, another ritual of conjuring images in a dark space.

The cinematographer of Caves of Forgotten Dreams, Peter Zeitlinger, shot the film in 3D, experimenting with logistics to create a portable device to shoot on-site. The film premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where the theatre screen was transformed into cave walls. Herzog drew on this screen his impressions and interpretations of Chauvet and presented them to the audience, replicating as closely as possible the contours and curves of the cave walls. They gave life to the animals in 3D, through the movements of lights in a pitch-black room.

In contrast, I watched this film in 2022, on MUBI, in my room in Jakarta. It would be almost impossible to watch the film in the exact setting of the premiere twelve years ago, and it is certainly impossible to experience what the TIFF Bell Lightbox audience did when the film jammed in the projector five minutes before the end. I missed out on a historical event that can never be repeated. For a moment, I thought that perhaps I had no right to speak of a cinematic experience which violated the director’s intention. But to a similar extent, do I have the right to write about the drawings of Chauvet Cave? My understanding of the past will always be mediated through objects, eroding the quality of their sensation via each mediation: through their remains, through Herzog’s interpretations, through the glow of my laptop in a dark room. Your understanding, too, is mediated through this essay.

Firsthand experience comes at a certain price. The privilege of granted access to the cave or attending the 3D screenings would require someone to live in a certain place, to afford traveling, to be a certain someone, or to be aware of a certain cultural phenomenon at a certain time. Access to history, culture, and the right to interpret them will always be off-limits for the masses, as long as originality and the singularity of the object are privileged. But it doesn’t have to be so, as Schneider wrote:

This is not to say that we have reached the ‘end of history’, neither is it to say that history didn’t happen, or that to access it is impossible. It is rather to resituate the site of any knowing as body-to-body transmission. Whether that ritual repetition is the attendance to documents in the library (the acts of acquisition, the acts of reading, writing, education) or the family oral tales of lineage … or the myriad traumatic re-enactments engaged in both consciously and unconsciously, we refigure history onto body-to-body transmission. We are reading, then, our performative relations to documents and to documents’ ritual status as performatives within a culture that privileges object remains.

My second point is that some images haunt us equally. I don’t need to see the postscript scene in 3D to flinch when the camera crouches to shoot the white crocodile up close on the glass wall of the manmade pond, the species Herzog narrates as “mutated albinos breeding in the warm water from a nuclear power plant.” One big eye appears on the water surface, its pupil only a black slit in the middle of its eye, watching me intensely. I feel a sudden wave of fear, as if it knows where I’m hiding. I am naked, and suddenly ashamed to participate in this voyeurism called cinema. The crocodile swims away, while the camera moves underwater: the animal seems to have confronted its own reflection in a glass wall. As the camera moves to show the surface once again, it turns out the crocodile was approaching its doppelganger, another white albino specimen, lightly touching, snout to snout.

Do we create representations of our past, or are we just predetermined mutations: patterns and rituals repeating the inevitable past?  Just this once, the crocodiles swim in motion, realizing the dreams of the animals in Chauvet Cave, who are forever condemned to be still.