Werner Herzog's 'Cave Of Forgotten Dreams'

There's an underground cave in the south of France with contents so valuable a big steel door guards the entrance. Director Werner Herzog's new documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is about that treasure. The Chauvet cave paintings are the oldest cave paintings on record.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The wide-ranging films of the German director Werner Herzog include many acclaimed documentaries. Kenneth Turan reviews his latest, called "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."

KENNETH TURAN: There's an underground cave in the south of France with contents so valuable, a big steel door guards the entrance. Ordinary mortals are never allowed inside because the treasure is so fragile. Now for the first time, director and narrator Herzog helps us enter what he calls the cave of forgotten dreams.

The cave is huge - the size of a football field - and so quiet you can hear your own heartbeat. On the cave walls are hundreds of paintings so startlingly beautiful they make your head spin. These are not just any paintings - they date back 32,000 years and qualify as the oldest cave art ever discovered.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

Unidentified Man: A beautiful horse here, one of the most beautiful in the cave. And what is touching is that it looks as if it had been done yesterday. Look how fresh it looks with that technique.

TURAN: The most confounding thing about these paintings is how good they are by any standard. Images like a compelling pride of lions intent on some unseen prey astound even the experts.

(Soundbite of movie, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams")

Mr. WERNER HERZOG (Filmmaker): We should note that the artist painted this bison with eight legs, suggesting movement, almost a form of proto-cinema.

TURAN: These ancient artists made extensive use of the curves and contours of the cave's undulating walls, so Herzog decided to film these paintings in 3-D because it was the only way to capture that extra dimension.

The filmmaker never lets us forget that these paintings are so old they represent the awakening of the modern human soul and are proof of how intrinsically human the artistic impulse is.

Herzog also insists that because of the paintings' great age, understanding what was on the minds of the image makers is a challenge. But that doesn't get in the way of the profound feelings viewing this art awakens in us. It's a privilege and a pleasure to be present in a sacred space where the human and the mystical effortlessly intertwine. And we are in Werner Herzog's debt for that great gift.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews films for the Los Angeles Times and for MORNING EDITION.

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