Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Palaeolithic drawings of horses in the Chauvet caves, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



12 January



Caves of Nerja discovered, 1959

On this day in 1959, the Caves of Nerja were discovered. Or rediscovered. Stretching for about 5 kilometres close to the town of Nerja, Malaga, Spain, the system was entered by five friends who decided to follow a flock of bats into a locally well known small opening in the ground. This led to a narrow passage. And this led to a huge cavernous grotto now known as the Cascade Room. With the lights they had available they were able to make out the enormity of their find. They pressed on, accompanied by the sound of the beating of bat wings, and soon discovered what is now known as the Hall of Ghosts, where they found two skeletons. Frightened, they beat a hasty retreat. Further expeditions, by professional archaeologists, confirmed the importance of this find. From the evidence of the human bones found, and the cave paintings also evident, it appears that the caves were inhabited seasonally by humans from about 40,000BC for about 4,000 years. At this point the caves became permanently inhabited, and evidence from pottery shards, animal bones and human remains tells us that they were used for the housing of animals, the production of pots and the burial of their dead. In 2012 it was announced that some of the paintings on the cave walls might have been made by Neanderthals, since this was one of the last areas where they are believed to have lived. Which would make the Nerja caves unique.




Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, dir: Werner Herzog)

When Werner Herzog made this film in 2010, it was believed that the Chauvet caves in the South of France contained the oldest pictures created by human beings. At around 32,000 years old, they were around twice as old as anything else then documented. Much of what Herzog then goes on to tell us, in hushed awed tones – about Neanderthals not being capable of art – turns out, in the light of the discoveries at Nerja, to be questionable. But his belief, that these drawings must be seen as the work not of the Palaeolithic ancestor of modern humankind but of modern humanity itself, is still worth considering. Herzog’s commentary reminds us, that even in his most operatic dramatic works, such as Fitzcarraldo, there has been a strong element of the documentarian at work. And his notion of the “ecstatic truth” in documentary film-making – which, according to his own Minnesota Declaration is “mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation,” – finds its ideal subject material in this cave onto which Herzog can project his romantic fantasies and theorisations. Sometimes this can be expressed in the most appallingly crass way, such as when a scientist leading Herzog and fellows into the cavern calls for quiet, claiming it is so silent down there that everyone will be able to hear their heartbeat. Herzog adds a heartbeat to the soundtrack, then compounds the crime with a doubly winsome “it is our heartbeat too” remark, as if this were a true moment of connection back to our flintstonian forebears. This apart, remarkable things to note include the fact that it’s shot in 3D, which is not only unusual in a documentary setting but also something Herzog considers a “gimmick of commercial cinema”. However he believes it is peculiarly appropriate here since it helps to yoke the pictures on the walls to the contours of the cave beneath and hence reveal the intentions of the artist. We are given an extended guided tour of the caves, their remarkable paintings, and we’re shown the “Palaeolithic Venus” (the representation of the female form that is remarkably similar, no matter where in the world it is from), and the drawings of grouped horses heads so fresh they look like they were done yesterday. The Germans have a love of the ethnographic, the romantic and the magical, and all combine in this underground adventure cheerled by one of the world’s most engaged, fascinating film-makers.



Why Watch?


  • Access to caves usually closed to the public
  • See it in 3D – if you’ve got the technology
  • “A frozen flash of time” as Herzog puts it
  • An unusual documentary from a true maverick


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Cave of Forgotten Dreams – at Amazon





The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Bruno S as Kaspar Hauser in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



4 November



Genie the feral child found, 1970

On this day in 1970, the child known as Genie was discovered in Los Angeles, California, USA. Aged around 13, she had spent her life tied to a child’s toilet or tied up in a crib, unable to move except her hands and feet. Brought up by a progressively blind mother in thrall to a mentally ill and violent husband, Genie had been fed on nothing but soft or baby food since birth. Genie was the fourth child born to the couple. The first two had died – one of pneumonia from being left in a garage, another from choking on his own mucus (though no one really knows). The third had been taken on by the husband’s own father, who had been concerned for the baby’s welfare. No such luck for Genie, who had spent her life in one room, in a house that was silent (no radio or TV) and with a man who would beat her if she made any sound. Genie’s mother eventually made a dash for freedom with Genie after a particularly violent argument with her husband, and the child’s condition came to light after the woman accidentally went into a social services office (she was almost entirely blind by this point and thought she was going into a disability benefits office). Genie was underweight, still had her baby teeth as well as her adult teeth, could not chew, was impervious to cold, incontinent, could not speak, stand up straight or walk properly. Because of her lack of language she became of extreme interest to scientists, who were intrigued to find a subject who could finally solve the much debated question as to whether the ability to learn language was innate or just specific to babies. Genie now lives in a facility, away from media interest, in an undisclosed area of California.



The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974, dir: Werner Herzog)

Based on real events, Werner Herzog’s drama tells the story of Hauser, who in 1828 appeared in a town in Germany with a Bible in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. The paper told the story of how this poor unfortunate has spent the first 20 years of his life locked in a cellar. Kaspar cannot speak, read or write and the film is essentially about his first stumbles away from this position of ignorant certainty into the world the rest of us inhabit. Kaspar is played by an actor known only as Bruno S, a man who himself spent more than 20 years in mental institutions, though there was nothing particularly wrong with him. Telling Hauser’s story as a series of vignettes – don’t come particularly looking for plot – Herzog’s keenest interest is in what makes a human human, and of where exactly humanity sits in relation to the rest of the natural world; something we have seen repeatedly in his films, even the documentary about cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) or the one about the guy who thought he could befriend a bear (Grizzly Man). In Kaspar Hauser Herzog is trying to position us inside the man’s head. But what sort of understanding of our world and its myriad complex interactions can a man have who has known only a cellar? Or put in Wittgenstein’s formulation – “if a lion could talk, we could not understand him”. As with Genie, Kaspar is examined by scientists, poked and prodded, one second a thing of wonder, the next an object of pity. Is the savage noble, as the fashionable ideas of Rousseau were suggesting, or just a savage? Herzog, too, wonders. But in typical Herzog style, he knows that the question itself contains its own answer. Humans are not so easily put into boxes.



Why Watch?


  • Bruno S’s strange, bewildering performance
  • Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, 1975
  • What is a human? – a question usually hijacked by politicians
  • A key work for any fan of Herzog’s work


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – at Amazon