Cave Of Forgotten Dreams Essay

Meditations on “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”

Review by Nathaniel Bates, May 24, 2011

A 3-D Documentary Film directed by Werner Herzog, with Peter Zeitlinger, Cinematography; distributed by IFC Films (USA) and History Channel for TV, released April 29, 2011, running time, 89 minutes.

Werner Herzog is not a typical movie director, because he is extremely willing to take a risk.  He took such a risk with his documentary 3-D film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  Herzog was willing to enter an old cave containing extreme levels of radon and carbon dioxide in order to film 32,000 year old wall paintings, which have been hidden from human eyes until the twentieth century.

The cave so privileged to contain prehistoric human art is called the “Chauvet Cave.”  It was in 1994 that three hikers accidentally discovered this remarkable cave.  Those discoverers were in for a surprise, because the cave paintings were astonishing works of art that can be compared with paintings of the Renaissance.  These paintings date back to the early Cro-Magnon period in Europe, approximately 32,000 years before the present, even predating the paintings of the Lascaux Cave which go back only 17,000 years.

The paintings depicted animals with extreme realism, each seeming to tell a story that reflected philosophical themes of human existence.  Animals were shown in motion, communicating subtle essences to the viewer, as if to reflect universal facets of the human condition as much as anything in the natural world.  What was most astonishing to the viewer was the extent to which hunters, who regularly killed animals or avoided them, could paint the same animals with an air of empathy that suggests, well, humanity.  Herzog’s entire film is an odd rebuke to the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw view of prehistory.

Whether all of the Chauvet paintings are 32,000 years old or some of them are more recent is a matter of controversy.  However, the fact remains that these paintings predate what paleontologists call the “Holocene Epoch,” the most recent 10,000 year period which historians consider to be the central focus of human history.

The distinction between the terms “Holocene Period” and “history” is an important one.  The term “Holocene Epoch” evokes the world of the natural scientist, a world of eons of time in which the story of human civilization is but a mere flicker.  However, to the modern historian, the term “historical period” describes the flowering of human social development. “History” for historians implies a social universe of symbols as important as any natural universe would be to a physical scientist.

When historians study history, they study documents which flow from written language.  Even archeologists have traditionally tended to require some form of written language before they deem a society to be “historic” as opposed to being “prehistoric.” As such, they can only study history from the standpoint of symbols that can be abstracted and universalized.  Symbols are universalized when they are made communicative in a way that can be grasped outside of a specific context.  In other words, a “sphere” can be universalized while a particular round fruit can only be understood in a specific context that is experienced in the part of the world where it can be found.

Today’s globalized world has allowed for ever greater universalization of formerly specific ideas and commodities. Still, we can generally say that it has been true in the historical period that communicative knowledge has been divided into universals and specifics. Even today, with the Internet and mass communication, it is hard to globalize particulars beyond an image on a screen and some degree of understanding across cultures. Universals can be communicated through symbolism effectively, while specifics still require experience to complement any symbolism. The dichotomy between the world of symbols and the world of experience did not exist when all of history was “natural history,” yet it has existed since.  It often defines the angst that humans feel in the midst of civilization.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams plays havoc with the entire distinction between natural history and the symbolic underpinnings of what historians call “history.”  Applying the universal/specific dichotomy suggested above, humanity arose in the realm of natural history in which all experience was specific and contextual.  Eventually, the human race entered the realm of history once symbolism allowed universals to be communicated beyond the confines of localized experience.  The film addresses the question of when natural history became history, or when humanity became capable of universalizing a form of communication.  Such communication was traditionally thought to separate humans from animals. The distinction between human beings and animals has, therefore, been a central question of philosophy throughout western thought.

Since the time of Darwin, however, intellectual thought has tended to emphasize the human/animal distinction less and less.  Today primate and dolphin researchers are showing that traits previously thought to be unique to humans are in fact not confined to humans at all.  Animals can communicate, often in very sophisticated ways.  Even among Darwin’s critics on the right and left, there continues to be an erosion of the need to believe that humans are a radically distinct order of creation. His critics on the right reject the claim that animals evolved into humans and those on the left do not acknowledge the idea of a natural order based on survival of the fittest. Yet, even among those skeptical of Darwin, strict human/animal distinctions, upheld since the time of Aristotle, have softened somewhat in the western world. Among western families the dog often seems like an acknowledged member of the household, as if we were now leaving behind earlier dogmas that animals did not possess souls.

At the same time that the human/animal distinction has been downplayed, the new paradigm in biology raises the question: When does natural history become human history? We can acknowledge that chimpanzees communicate, as do dolphins.  Many animals communicate.  Clearly, however, only humans are able to communicate ideas from one generation to the next in a manner that can be represented in symbols that are potentially universal. Human symbolism transcends immediacy.

The symbols of any given culture can flow in lines of transmission that radiate outward to cultures not even remotely related, but which are capable of understanding those symbols.  Indeed, written records and surviving artwork are signs of what might be considered human history, a history that allows for communication without depending entirely on culturally specific references. Although geologists may consider this period the “Holocene Epoch,” for social scientists and historians this is the period when rocks speak and when paper documents hold the key to the stories of people who would otherwise be dry bones.

Historians usually claim that the transition between natural history and history took place around 10,000 years ago, around the beginning of the Holocene age.  Yet this distinction is problematic, because oral histories of indigenous peoples would not be considered “history” according to this periodization.  Indeed, the Chauvet Cave art that Herzog brought to the big screen suggests another possible narrative.  The film suggests that “history” may well be as old as Cro-Magnon man himself.  If it is true, as the film suggests, that Neanderthals did not possess artistic sophistication (a disputed claim), then Cro-Magnon man might well be the first to use shapes and colors in order to communicate the inner person in a manner suggesting some form of symbolic language.  At the very least, the sophistication of the paintings in the Chauvet and Lascaux Caves suggests that the artists intended their animal artwork to communicate their place in the cosmos to their descendants, and perhaps even to other tribal units who might have shared the caves as sacred sites.  Thus, these caves can be considered historical, because they contain primary sources that tell a story, perhaps incomplete, yet not lost to history.

The distinction between human and animal should be less about having emotions or the capacity for empathy (given that animals possess emotions and empathy) than it is about the capacity to communicate and create historical records.  Real history must take into account written and oral history, but after seeing Herzog’s film one must also include artistic history.  Art can be considered a form of communication preserved for posterity.  The sophisticated art of the Chauvet and Lascaux Caves suggests that deep emotions and sentiments about animals, humanity, and the meaning of existence were intended to be preserved as a record for the ages.  At that point, natural history became history.  Perhaps one day the historical record might be broadened to include the artistic remnants of Neanderthals; for now, however, the cave art of the Cro-Magnon appears to be our best marker for when art became sophisticated and nuanced.

Looking at the question from another perspective, we could say that the Holocene period may have been when agriculture began to replace hunting and gathering. Historical discourse, however, predates that time if we include art and sophisticated relics. If readers suspect that my impressions are wrong and feel that we really are looking at a world before history, then perhaps we are seeing merely our need for some signs of authentic communication from pictures on a cave wall.  But the movement from the cave paintings to the invention of writing could well have been only a matter of humanity following an inclination to create history and not simply to live history. Either way one sees it, eons of time may have been lost to history, but the artists who created the Chauvet Cave paintings have certainly extended the backward reach of our human memory.

One leaves the Herzog film with a wish to know more.  It may be that we will know more at some point.  However, the French government has sealed the cave.  Herzog’s crew may well have given us the last glimpse of this lost world. What is not lost, however, is the symbology of these paintings.  If the cave art was intended to be universal, then the film communicated its message.



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Abstract: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) has been celebrated as the first non-gratuitous use of 3-D: perfectly suited to revealing the interior of the cave and the naturalistic environment in which it is situated, as opposed to immersing the spectator within computer-generated artificial worlds. I will dispute this reading of the film, describing its use of stereoscopy as instead expressive of an anti-naturalistic ecstatic gestalt by appeal to Ágnes Pethő’s concept of intermediality and the film phenomenology of Vivian Sobchack. Moreover, I will read the figural tropes generated through the film’s use of stereoscopy through George Bataille’s analysis of the emergence of human consciousness, which I argue reciprocates a key thematic of Herzog’s filmmaking.


Figure 1: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)


This essay began with the desire to read the use of “3D” stereoscopic imagery in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010) as an expression of one of the film’s central themes: the enigmatic consciousness of those early humans who left their renderings and cultural artifacts in the Chauvet cave in southern France. Indeed, the film, and Herzog as narrator, both reflect on the cave paintings as a form of proto-cinema, and reciprocally upon cinema as an analog of primitive consciousness. In its reflexive layering of media forms and metaphors between the bookends of what Herzog claims to be the oldest know examples of human representation and the most current cinematic technologies, the film engages in what Ágnes Pethő, in her book Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between (2011), describes as elaborate forms of mirroring characteristic of “abysmal intermediality”. For Pethő, intermedial confrontations open onto an in-between space (or abyme) that transcends medium specificity but instead foregrounds the embodied situations that negotiate them. In this respect, intermedial analysis has phenomenological implications, in relation to which, like Pethő’s own work, I will invoke the film theory of Vivian Sobchack. In describing the structure of the particular abyme onto which Cave opens, I will also draw upon Georges Bataille’s anthropological speculations about the co-emergence of human consciousness, tool use and the order of things to reflect upon the meaning of the particular correlation in which the film configures spectator, object and world, which I will elaborate as its ecstatic gestalt.

Intermediality and Phenomenology

For Pethő, what differentiates intermediality from intertextuality, as well as from more closely related theories of remediation, is the former’s emphasis on embodiment as the primary axis of analysis. As she asserts: “While in intertextuality we have an object that dissolves into its relations, in cinematic intermediality we seem to have moved closer to … a quasi-palpable, corporeal entity in its intermedial density” (2011, 47). In other words, the intermedial resides at the intersections among the embodied situations implicated both by the different media invoked within a given film, and the specific embodied situation of the spectator. She argues further, that as a result of it’s irreducibly embodied nature, “the intermedial cannot be read, at least not in any conventional way that we understand reading … because it is not textual in nature” (67). She continues: “It is not something one ‘deciphers’, it is something one perceives or senses” (68). This assertion involves some contentious assumptions regarding the relationship between embodiment and signification in the context of Pethő’s adaptation of Sobchack’s phenomenology. I’ll return to this issue towards the end of the essay, as it will be exemplified in the analysis that follows. However, I want to assert from the outset that notwithstanding this concern, it is the general phenomenological commitment of Pethő’s theorisation of the intermedial that marks its particular applicability to Cave. Reciprocally, I hope that my reading of the film will also lend some clarification to an approach that is at times as vague as it is provocative. For as Pethő herself acknowledges, “the possible import of phenomenological approaches to film in the interpretation of cinematic intermediality has not been stressed enough…. The phenomenology of intermediality, although hinted at … is yet to be spelled out” (69).

As suggested above, such a “spelling out” must attend to the modalities of embodiment implicated in cinematic intermediality. On one hand, intermediality is itself predicated upon an understanding of film and other moving image based media as intrinsically expressive of situations of embodied consciousness. On the other hand, as Pethő points out: “‘reading’ intermedial relations requires more than anything else, an embodied spectator” (69). In elaborating both sides of this correlation, Pethő relies on Sobchack’s phenomenology of film experience: in the first instance her concept of “film’s body” (1992), and in the second her notion of the spectator as “cinesthetic subject” (2004).

According to Sobchack, “a film must constitute an act of seeing for us to be able to see it” (1992, 129). Insofar as “vision is an act that occurs from somewhere in particular; its requisites are both a body and a world” (25), an observation she applies “not only to the spectator of the film, but also to the film as spectator” (49). What she calls the “film’s body,” like our own bodies, is experienced primarily and prereflectively not as a visibly represented body-object, but as the implicit means of perceiving a visible world. She writes:

Each film projects and makes uniquely visible not only the objective world but the very structure and process of subjective, embodied vision—hitherto only directly available to human beings as the invisible and private structure we each experience as “my own”. (298)

Figure 2: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

In this respect, the spectator’s own embodied situation functions as the common denominator through which the film’s body is made sensible and intelligible within a “double occupancy of vision” (260). As Sobchack argues, the fact that cinema communicates directly through sound and vision alone does not mean that the film experience is reduced to those channels of perception. Rather, through the phenomena of synaesthesia, the lived body automatically and prereflectively transcodes visual and auditory perceptions indirectly across the other sensory registers. In Cave this is most apparent in the way the proximate relation of the camera to the walls of the cave invokes the tactile qualities of the surface within the lived body of the spectator—as if touching through one’s eyes. The cinesthetic subject is thus neither disembodied—reduced to a transcendental gaze—nor is its experience of film equivalent to direct unmediated perception.

In qualifying this mingled “intermedial density” as “quasi-palbable”, Pethő seems to corroborate Sobchack’s point that the film’s body is never experienced as identical to that of the spectator, nor collapsed or conflated in experience. As she asserts, “I never merely ‘receive’ the film’s vision as my own … ” (271). While they might overlap and intersect in ways uniquely enabled by their intermediation, each still retains a mutual exteriority or otherness so essential to the preservation of that “in-between space” on which the intermedial relies. For Pethő it is precisely the unique openness of the film’s body to that of the spectator combined with the distinct differences between the two that marks the intermedial nature of film experience. She cites Jennifer Barker’s reflections on Sobchack’s phenomenology in this respect:

We exist—emerge really—in the contact between our body and the film’s body… a complex relationship that is marked as often by tension as by alignment…. so that the cinematic experience is the experience of being both “in” our bodies and “in” the liminal space created by that contact. (2009, 19)

What I will explore in this essay is how the use of stereoscopy in Cave of Forgotten Dreams augments this tension, both in relation to the embodied situation of the spectator and the embodied situations implicated by other medialities within the film.

Pethő is equally concerned with intermedial relations within film insofar as the incorporation of other media forms involves exchanges among the modes of embodiment implicated by each. In an article not mentioned by Pethő: “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic Presence” (2004), Sobchack prefigures this move as she traces how the “techno-logic” of each medium implicates a particular “phenomo-logic”:

Insofar as the photographic, the cinematic, and the electronic have each been objectively constituted as a new and discrete techno-logic, each has also been subjectively incorporated, enabling a new and discrete perceptual mode of existential and embodied presence. (139)

For example, Sobchack describes a scene in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) where Deckard re-animates a photograph belonging to the replicant Leon through a fictional electronic device. She observes how “transmitted to the television screen, the moving images no longer quite retain the concrete, material and objective ‘thingness’ of the photograph, but they also do not achieve the subjective animation of the intentional and prospective vision objectively projected by the cinema” (154). Sobchack’s description of the transmuting force of this remediation anticipates the in-between status that Pethő attributes to the intermedial.

The example from Blade Runner is also indicative of the capacity of film’s body to generate other embodied situations as correlatives of the actual and speculative technologies represented and emulated within its fictional world. In Cave there are a peculiar series of shots, peppered throughout the film, in which scientists researching different aspects of the cave paintings each stand (either alone or with their partners) inside the cave while displaying a printed image of a painting towards the camera. Rather than taking on an enhanced appearance it is the anemic two-dimensionality of the displayed images that is accentuated in relation to the stereoscopically enhanced environment they occupy. While their affect is one of scientific seriousness, the intermedial figuration of these images within the stereoscopic world of the film offers no enhancement of the representational field within their frame, but instead serves to diminish both their objective presence and signifying power. It’s as if stereoscopy is being turned against representation to reverse the relations of containment between the remediated photos and their referents. The insertion of the two dimensional images within the stereoscopically augmented world of the film thereby exemplifies the “abysmal” power of the intermedial to figure one media element against the other as ground, so as to throw some limitation into relief (Pethő 2011, 44).

Pethő describes how intermediality can also generate traces or metaphors from other media that reflexively allegorise embodied situations within the film (65). In one instance, the film’s remediation of the digital image processing techniques of Tossello and Fritz, who in Herzog’s words “used the dimensionality of the surface to create a powerful contrast” by dissecting the palimpsest of marks on the walls (from bear scratches to rendered figures) into discrete layers, offers a reflexive model of his own use of stereoscopy to hold certain intermedial elements in suspension. In another example, the computer-generated model of the cave, a geometric structure of luminous pixels rotating within a blackened virtual space, quite literally turns the unfathomable negative space into a stereoscopic positive—an objective correlative for Sobchack’s description of the film’s body as subjective embodied vision turned inside out and made visible onscreen. However, in Cave the reversibility of film’s body finds itself at an impasse qua abyme relative to the consciousness of the cave painters, which according to Herzog’s voice-over, we “will never be able to understand”.

Figure 3: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

Stereoscopy and Documentary

One key advantage of Pethő’s account of intermediality as intercorporeality is that it bypasses reductively empirical and technologistic definitions of media specificity while restoring the phenomenological grounds for describing (without reifying) the experiential differences among media. For example, within the context of this study an intermedial approach aids in exploring the tensions between assumptions regarding stereoscopy, documentary, and Hollywood cinema that, according to Barbara Klinger, many of the critical celebrations of Cave of Forgotten Dreams have sought to neutralise. For instance, emphasis has been placed on the fact that “Cave … focused on a real-life marvel rather than a CGI-manufactured landscape” and that it was shot in 3-D as opposed to other films “converted in post-production and thus considered as ‘fake 3D’” (Klinger 2012, 38). On this basis the film is regarded as “one of the few justifiable recent excursions into 3D” (Hoberman 2011), “necessary” for revealing the interior of the cave and the natural environment in which it is situated (Klinger 2012, 38). It’s worth noting how the criteria of indexical documentary realism implicated in the aforementioned defenses of Cave, on the one hand, and the connotations of 3D with Hollywood spectacle, on the other, constitute a problem that must be resolved by these same critics through the recuperation of Cave’s “naturalism”.[1] However, such apologies ring false in the face of Herzog’s own rejection of the documentary tendency (of which he accuses Cinéma Vérité in particular) that “confounds fact and truth” (2002, 301). Instead, he insists that “there are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization” (301). Thus, “ecstatic truth … is the enemy of the merely factual” and a counterpart rather of the sublime (2010). The notions of media specificity that haunt the critical reception of the film also conspire to diminish what Pethő identifies as the productive tensions of the intermedial both within the film, and between film’s body and spectator. It is thus no surprise that the radical intermediality of Cave must be quelled in order to preserve a received sense of its “documentariness”.

Klinger herself is suspicious of this critical mobilisation of stereoscopic CGI in the Hollywood blockbuster as foil for Cave’s “naturalism”. As she writes:

Cave’s relationship to 3D is more paradoxical and interesting than such contrasts suggest…. In fact [the] film is [reflexively] as much about 3D as it is about its archaeological site…. [Specifically] the stylistic choices of deep focus cinematography (which presents foreground, middle ground, and background in focus) and a dynamically mobile camera help to wed spectacular natural phenomena and the spectacle of space. (39)

Her strategy is thus to argue that Cave transcends the presumed antagonism between the conventions of naturalism and spectacle qua stereoscopy by becoming reflexive in its spectacular naturalism. In so doing, Klinger responds to, but also reproduces, a tendency to understand stereoscopy as mimetically reflecting [or enhancing] structures and properties belonging to the objective world. Contrary to this tendency, and consistent with intermedial analysis I’d like to focus instead on the role of stereoscopy in its production of a mode of subjective embodied consciousness. In this context it is worth recalling Sobchack’s fundamental insight that any cinematic representation of a visible world entails the primarily invisible structuring presence of an embodied viewing subject—what she calls film’s body.

In pursuing the question of what structure of consciousness is manifested by the use of stereoscopy within Cave, one source for an answer can be found in Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer where he argues that the “lack of planar unity” in the nineteenth century stereoscope produced a fragmented observer quite distinct from the unified observer of the camera/photograph (1990, 128). I want to suggest that the reflexivity of Cave hinges upon a structurally analogous “structural/planar disunity of the perceptual field” (128) that prevails in normative cinematic experience, and a correlative fragmentation of the viewing subject/spectator (though to different effect). Following Crary’s account of the experience of stereoscopic photography, my analysis proceeds from a rejection of the naturalism ascribed to Herzog’s deployment of stereoscopy. Instead, I want to argue that the combination of stereoscopy with deep focus cinematography and camera movement (especially inside the cave), which Klinger refers to as “gold standards … of achieving ‘3Dness’” (2012, 40), often result in a hyperbolic space that exaggerates the separation of figure from ground towards the center of the frame while attenuating it at the peripheries through anamorphosis. The effect is especially amplified during instances of negative parallax (objects appearing to protrude through the screen) in addition to the film’s more persistent positive parallax (the appearance of supplementary depth behind the screen).[2] This emphatic demarcation of figure from ground produces what I describe as the film’s ecstatic gestalt. It is ecstatic in the double sense of ekstasis: as a literal standing out of figure from ground, and as the existential sense of what Herzog describes as “a person’s stepping out of himself into an elevated state” (2010). These two meanings of the ecstatic also relate to the two principle correlations within the gestalt: figure and ground within the perceptual field, and subject figured against the perceptual field as object of perception.

Figure 4: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

I want to argue that stereoscopy exaggerates the configuration of figure/ground relations within the cinematic image that, according to Sobchack, provides the most fundamental expression of the intentional activity of the film’s body as viewing subject. As she writes: “perception—as an irreducible correlation of figure and ground—forms and organizes a perceptual field(1992, 70). In this respect, every relation of figure and ground implies the intentional activity of a viewing subject as an irreducible element within the gestalt (figured against the perceived world), whose literal and intentional movement reconstitutes the perceptual field, altering and potentially reversing the relation of figure and ground within it. Because this changing configuration of subject/figure/ground is accomplished by “the radical and prereflective deliberation of the body-subject” (Sobchack 1992, 70), we are typically unaware of the co-constituting force of our embodied intentionality, which remains latent to consciousness. However, for Crary this latency is counteracted in stereoscopic photography, which impressed upon consciousness the productive power of the apparatus/observer couplet as projective of dimensionality—experiencing it where it did not objectively exist: within the representational field of the two dimensional image (1990, 129). Or, as Martin Jay summarises: “its three-dimensional images were only in the perception of the viewer—the stereoscope called into question the assumed congruence between the geometry of the world and the natural geometry of the mind’s eye” (1994, 152).

The highly mobile camera in Cave redoubles this effect by associating the exaggeration of its stereoscopic demarcation of figure/ground with the intentional movements of a viewing subject rather than with some natural geometry inherent to the represented world. Put simply, the effect follows the movement of the camera, as in the three-hundred and sixty degree pan around the so-called “cave of the lions” where the sense of added stereoscopic depth, or positive parallax, fluctuates with the distortions of perspective caused by the rotation of deep focus cinematography within such a tight space. The awareness of stereoscopic perception as constituted by the visual subject is also reinforced inside the cave by the spotlight on Herzog’s helmet (or that of the camera person), which creates a sort of iris within the image that circumscribes a zone of greatest effect. Taken together, these representational strategies install a persistent reflective awareness of the productive power of the film’s stereoscopic body within the otherwise prereflectively constituted visual field.

The expressionism of this ecstatic gestalt is also critical to recognition of the intermedial fissures opened in-between the spectator and film’s body. Barker’s earlier remarks to this effect corroborate Sobchack’s argument that the “double occupancy” of the film experience also creates a potential site of tension since the film’s body “in its visible and visual intentional activity, exists within our vision but not as our vision” (1992, 142). As such, “in so far as the visual space I see before me is not completely isomorphic with the bodily space from which I see, there will be a pressure from, an echo of, the machine that mediates my perception” (179; original emphases). This phenomenon of “echo focus” takes on a persistent quality in Cave given that the 3D effect is unlike both non-stereoscopic film and the extra-cinematic space lived by the spectator. The ecstatic gestalt is thus experienced not just as a transformation of the ordinary dimensionality of film, but also of the quotidian three-dimensional world of the spectator.

The “inner landscape” of stereoscopy

Herzog refers to the cave paintings in voice-over as “inner landscapes … of long forgotten dreams”. The notion of an inner landscape is a potent phenomenological and intermedial metaphor which Eric Ames has analysed as exemplary of how Herzog’s representation of “[outer] landscapes serve to conjure unseen words of affect and spirituality, even as they represent the physical world we inhabit” (2009, 58). For example, in his voiceover narration for The Dark Glow of the Mountain (Werner Herzog, 1984), Herzog remarks: “We weren’t so much interested in making a film about mountain climbing per se, or about climbing techniques. What we wanted to find out was what goes on inside mountain climbers who undertake such extreme endeavors…. Aren’t these mountains and peaks like something deep within us all?” During Herzog’s voice-over the camera pans across the peaks and valleys of the range, providing what Ames describes as a “graphic representation” (58) of the affective highs and lows of the climbers’ inner landscape. In Cave’s ecstatic gestalt, I want to locate a related system of correspondence. Though in this case the graphical axis of the inner landscape has been rotated from the vertical and horizontal (peaks and valleys) to the perpendicular (figure and ground), and from the syntagmatic to the paradigmatic.

Figure 5: The Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

In Cave as in other film’s such as The Grizzly Man (2005), the expression of inner landscapes connects with another persistent theme from Herzog’s oeuvre: exploration of the boundary between human and pre-human or animal consciousness. The relationship of gestalt philosophy to such themes is well established. In his reading of gestalt theorist Jean Piaget, Habermas describes how the emergence of a reflexive capacity within figure/ground relations in the development of the human child (to constitute oneself as figure against the world) recapitulates a stage in the evolution of human consciousness (1979). This is not to deny that infants, pre-human ancestors, or animals possess some ability to delineate figure from ground. The assumption rather is that they are incapable of bringing the gestalt to reflection, and of thereby figuring themselves within it. As Georges Bataille observes in Theory of Religion, although “the animal can be regarded as a subject for which the rest of the world is an object, it is never given the possibility of regarding itself in this way” (1989, 19).[3] Rather, for Bataille, “the animal is in the world as water is in water” (23). For example, the difference between the eater and eaten within the animal world is never qualitative but only ever quantitative: “In the movement of the waters he is only a higher wave overturning the other, weaker ones” (18-19). The animal is in a state of immanence, intimacy and immediacy within a world defined by continuity.

It is only through the correlated emergence of tool use, language and representation that human consciousness becomes reflectively aware of itself within a world of atomized and discontinuous ‘things’ defined by their function within a scheme of utility. For Bataille, the birth of the tool is intricately connected to that of the object and the subject. An instructive rendering of this event can be found in “The Dawn of Man” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) when the hominid has an epiphany in which it suddenly perceives/conceives a bone lying on the ground as a weapon. Simultaneous with this realisation is its ability to imaginatively extrapolate the application of the tool into other situational contexts (from breaking other bones on the ground, to smashing the head of an animal, to killing the leader of a rival group at the water hole), as well as into hypothetical temporalities, such as planning future uses of the tool. As a result, discontinuity is introduced into the world by an object that is perceived indirectly according to what it does rather than directly in its immanence and immediacy: “the purpose of a plow is alien to the reality that constitutes it” (Bataille 1989, 41). In what Bataille describes as “one of the most remarkable and fateful aberrations of language […] men situated on the same plane where the things appeared (as if they were comparable to the digging stick or the chipped stone) elements that were nonetheless continuous with the world, such as animals, plants, other men, and finally, the subject determining itself” (28, 31). So in other words, the question of what a thing is automatically devolves to a question of its use value, so that all things refer in their utility to humanity, and humanity in turn to God. Through a certain contagion of thought, “the transcendence of the tool and the creative faculty connected with its use are confusedly attributed … to the entire world” (32).

For Bataille, “the world of things is perceived as a fallen world. It entails the alienation of the one who created it…. The tool changes nature and man at the same time: it subjugates nature to man, who makes and uses it, but it ties man to subjugated nature” (41). The subjugation lies in the fact that, in contrast to the reversibility of figure and ground within the discontinuous world, the figuration of the discontinuous human world against the ground of the continuous pre-human world is irreversible. The thing becomes a reducing filter within consciousness, as perceptions become indiscernible from the concepts projected, which take on a sort of autonomy inseparable from the world in-itself. As a consequence, states Bataille, “nothing is more closed to us than this animal life from which we are descended…. We can never imagine things without consciousness … since we and imagine imply consciousness, our consciousness, adhering indelibly to their presence” (20). Nevertheless, as Bataille asserts: “There is every indication that the first men were closer than we are to the animal world; they distinguished the animal from themselves perhaps, but not without a feeling of doubt mixed with terror and longing” (35). An anthropologist that Herzog interviews concurs that the cave painters did not merely see the animals they painted as things but as spiritual entities in a relationship characterised by greater “fluidity and permeability” than the modern world. By contrast, for Bataille, “The sense of continuity that we must attribute to animals … derived a new significance from the contrast it formed to the world of things … [and] offered man all the fascination of the sacred world, as against the poverty of the profane tool (of the discontinuous object)” (35). In Cave as in other films such as Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Herzog is most interested in the inner landscapes and unconscious drives of the scientists he interviews, such as Julien Monnet who reports that after going into the cave he couldn’t stop dreaming of lions and paintings of lions, and that he was possessed by “a feeling of powerful things and deep things, a feeling of understanding things, that was not a direct way”.

Indeed, Bataille concurs with Herzog that indirection is the only means of approach to such depths. The “abysmal” quality of this reciprocal mirroring between the human and the animal is illustrated traumatically in Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005) through the folly of Timothy Treadwell’s desire to “enter the secret world of the bears”. Narrating over a close-up shot of the face of the bear that likely killed and ate Treadwell, Herzog senses: “no understanding, no kinship, no mercy, only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me there is no such thing as the secret world of the bears and to me this blank stare speaks only of a half bored interest in food” into which Treadwell was (at his own peril) anthropomorphically projecting an “inner landscape”. Hence the irony (and the poetry) that the false opening through which Treadwell imposed himself on the world of the bears was reprised by an open mouth, the only way into the animal world being the reduction of the self to pure immanence, since one could not become animal and maintain any vestiges of human subjectivity and sovereignty.

Here we might begin to grasp the function of Cave’s stereoscopic ecstatic gestalt: to return its spectator not just to the physical site of the cave, but to a consciousness still astonished by the novelty and discontinuity of the thing figured in unnatural and quasi-hallucinatory fashion against a continuity that it occluded, but from which to quote William Wordsworth on his recollections of early childhood, it was “still trailing clouds of glory” ([1919] 2008, 536). In this way, my reading of Cave’s ecstatic gestalt through Bataille’s speculative anthropology also resonates with Paul Arthur’s elaboration of Herzog’s “metaphysical realism” in which:

As self-professed intermediary between opposing worlds—modern/pre-modern, prosaic/myth, accessible/recondite—Herzog’s strongest moments revolve around what can’t be shown, what exceeds or beggars representation … [and to] that which testifies to his own inadequacy and, by extension, that of cinema’s meager communicative tools. (2005, 5)

This metaphysical realism is reflected, for instance, in the way that Cave points from objective to non-objective forms of transcendence, between that from which the camera is merely physically blocked and that which is existentially inaccessible. For example, the reverse side of a large stalactite in the “cave of lions” on which is represented the one arguably human figure in the cave, cannot be viewed directly from the walkway to which the camera crew is restricted. “You’ll have to make do with a partial image”, observes the scientist supervising the filming. Undaunted, Herzog’s crew mounts the camera in reverse on a boom and extends it into the space to capture the opposite side of the formation. The effect of negative parallax is pronounced as a result of the proximity of the camera to the surface, which seems to bulge through the screen. While the attempt to get around the backside of the representation yields a full image, it reveals a partial human: resembling a bison from the waist up and what appears to be a female nude (reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf) from the waist down. The desire to get behind the image leads paradoxically to an image of the desire: the fundamentally conflicted impulse to merge human and animal modalities of embodied consciousness (via “fluidity and permeability”) through the means of representation.

Cave’s ecstatic gestalt involves both the literal sense of ekstasis as a figural standing out, and the metaphorical/metaphysical sense of an extraordinary pronouncement of being that defies representation. Writing in relation to a group of non-stereoscopic films invested in the expression of the spiritual through the material,[4] Sobchack observes how “the camera seeks a parallel ekstasis in the ‘flesh’ of the world: it offers up a profane illumination of objective matter that … opens into an apprehension of something ultimately unfathomable, uncontained and uncontainable—not only in the thing on which we gaze but also in ourselves” (2004, 298). In Cave the intensity of stereoscopic effects wax and wane relative to the film’s intentional objects. It is significant in this respect that the most pronounced instances of negative parallax accompany the exhibition and demonstration of pre-historic artifacts including weapons and tools, whose figuration within the film re-enacts—and commutes to the spectator—the sudden eruption of discontinuity that, according to Bataille, would have issued from their originary invention. The reflexivity of this intermedial reading is corroborated by the fact that in addition to pre-historic tools, the only similarly ecstatic expressions of negative parallax relate to representations of the tools of filmmaking, such as boom microphones and lighting equipment.

Indeed, negative parallax has a special affinity for tools that extend intentionality into space. However, it is telling that these stereoscopic representations of tools (both old and new) transcend the film’s explanatory function of their utility, and “illuminate” (to use Sobchack’s term) something in excess of their functionality. In this way, inadvertently perhaps, the film also invites intermedial reference to the very gratuitous deployments of stereoscopy from which critics have been so determined to distance Cave. For example, anthropologist Wulf Hein’s demonstration of replica prehistoric spears by thrusting and throwing them into negative parallax finds analogs in Hollywood films from Bwana Devil (Arch Oboler, 1952) to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012). However, the effects of negative parallax are most profound in relation to a different category of objects worked by tools but gesturing towards that continuous world whose opening—like a trompe l’oeil—they simultaneously block. The first of these objects is the figure of a chimerical lion/man rotated against a darkened backdrop, and offered as a complement to the image of the bison/woman on the stalactite. The second figure is the Venus of Hollifers, about which anthropologist Nicholas Conard makes the unintentional pun: “this one … stands out. It’s the absolute root of figurative depiction as we know it” (emphasis added). The effect of negative parallax is even greater here than in the previous example. Suspended in a glass box, the small sculpture seems to float in front of the screen in a state of ecstatic discontinuity from the surrounding world. The autonomy and disconnection that these objects achieve relative to their environment resonates with the emphasis on their being the “firsts” of their kind. Through the hyperbolic use of negative parallax, the spectator is invited to return to the moment of their radical “newness” in which their startling discontinuity would have been tantamount to a special effect, like the obelisk before the hominids in 2001.

I don’t offer these examples to imply that Herzog’s use of stereoscopy attempts to directly capture the inner landscape of a pre-human consciousness. For as Bataille declares: “There was no landscape in a world where the eyes that opened did not comprehend what they looked at, where indeed, in our terms, the eyes did not see” (1989, 21). Rather, I want to argue that Herzog cultivates this ecstatic gestalt in order to commute to the film spectator the startling novelty and transformative power that would have accompanied the eruption of the capacity for tool use, representation, and reflective consciousness against the ground of a pre-human world—which is why Herzog refers to the cave as the site of “the birth of the human soul.” In this way, Ekstasis thus accedes to ekphrasis, by which according to Pethő cinema incorporates intermedial relations to point beyond its own limits (46).


In concluding, I’d like to return to Pethő’s assertion that intermedial relations, because they occur at the prereflective level of embodiment, are not textual and cannot be read (69). This position is further grounded in her statement that “phenomenology does not see images as representations or signs; it sees them foremost as events and corporeal experiences” (70). This argument might at first glance seem to concur with that of Bataille. However, where he is content to be silent, Pethő wants description without signification. In this sense, her argument is in contradiction to the existential phenomenology of Sobchack in the context of which she advances it. In The Address of the Eye, Sobchack is explicit that she pursues a “semiotic phenomenology,” meaning that the structure of all systems of signification emerge from and recapitulate the structure of embodied prereflective perception (1992, 8). Thus embodiment appears as a theme only by virtue of being brought to reflection, but it can only be brought to reflection because it is already signifying. Hence for Sobchack, embodiment can be read, and she writes of “a textualizing of the sensing body” (69) which is a correlative of the fact that “in its existential function—perception is always semiotic” (70). The consequence of Pethő’s misreading is a potential mystification of the intermedial and romanticisation of the cinematic, in so far as the intermedial must be non-signifying yet embodied and cinematically expressible.

Relative to this discussion, it is intriguing that where Pethő touches briefly on “3D”, she asserts its antagonism to intermedial phenomena by drawing a contrast between “the intrusive ‘tactility’ of 3D images” and “‘haptic’ images” that, by contrast, “preserve a quality of openness towards intermediality” (105 n. 18). She continues that intermediality depends upon an “aesthetic distance”, which is preserved so long as the film is emulating some other mediality, such as painting or photography—a capacity cancelled by the “illusory display of objects in space that act upon our senses (as in the case of 3D imagery)” (105 n. 18). This critique seems overly proscriptive in light of the intermedial elements clearly apparent in a film like Cave. Also, when read in relation to Pethő’s dissociation of signs from corporeality, one might diagnose that it is precisely stereoscopy’s exaggeration of the signifying power of embodied consciousness through its ecstatic gestalt that troubles her.

There is also another way in which what Pethő refers to as stereoscopy’s “illusory display of objects” reflexively turns back upon the illusion of the object. In this respect, I would argue that Cave’s ecstatic gestalt induces a sort of impromptu phenomenological reduction upon the familiar, everyday world of things whose taken-for-granted dimensional extrusion as discrete and autonomous objects it renders strangely artificial, and quasi-hallucinatory. This is nowhere so apparent as in the opening scene, when the novelty of the stereoscopic effects would seem most pronounced to the unaccustomed eyes of the audience. The camera glides down a row within a vineyard that borders the area of the Chauvet Cave. Against the undifferentiated manifold of nature the vines are doubly objectified: both as “raw” nature “cooked” (to use Claude Lévi-Strauss’s [1969] terminology) into the useful form of a vineyard, and as figures of vision unnaturally extruded from their ground through the instrumental movement of our own language-laden consciousness. It is in this way that the novelty of Herzog’s use of stereoscopy doubles for that of the more primordial innovation of which cinema is itself an extension. By breaking the plane of representation and the illusion of depth to which the cinematic spectator is habituated, Cave simulates the world-rupturing force of a much more fundamental discontinuity in the perceptual gestalt and (importantly) provokes reflexive awareness of this event.



Ames, Eric. 2009. “Herzog, Landscape, and Documentary.” Cinema Journal 48 (2): 49-69.

Arthur, Paul. 2005. “Beyond the Limits: Werner Herzog’s Metaphysical Realism.” Film Comment 41 (4): 42-47.

Bataille, Georges. 1989. Theory of Religion. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Zone Books.

Bataille, Georges. 2005. The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, edited by Stuart Kendall. Translated by Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall. New York: Zone Books.

Crary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1979. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Herzog, Werner. 2002. “The Minnesota Declaration: Truth and fact in documentary cinema.” In Herzog on Herzog, edited by Paul Cronin, 301-302. New York: Faber and Faber.

Herzog, Werner. 2010. “On the Absolute, the Sublime and Ecstatic Truth.” Werner Herzog: The Only Official and Authentic Website of Werner Herzog. Accessed June 13 2013.

Hoberman, J. 2011. “Cave Man: Werner Herzog Can’t Get Out of His Own Way in Forgotten Dreams.” The Village Voice, April 27. Accessed January 12, 2014.

Jay, Martin.1993. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Klinger, Barbara. 2012. “Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Meditations on 3D.” Film Quarterly 65 (3): 38-43.

Klinger, Barbara. 2013. “Beyond Cheap Thrills: 3D Cinema Today, The Parallax Debates, and the ‘Pop-Out’.” Public Journal: 3D Cinema and Beyond 47: 186-99.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969. The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume One. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pethő, Ágnes. 2011. Cinema and Intermediality: The Passion for the In-Between. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Sobchack, Vivian. 1992. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sobchack, Vivian. 2004. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wordsworth, William. (1919) 2008. “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections on Early Childhood.” In The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900—Volume II, edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, 536. Alcester: Read Books.


Herzog, Werner. 2010. Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Creative Differences.

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Herzog, Werner. 1985. The Dark Glow of the Mountains. Sudfunk Stuttgart.

Herzog, Werner. 2005. The Grizzly Man. Lions Gate Films.

Jackson, Peter. 2012. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. New Line Cinema.

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Oboler, Arch. 1952. Bwana Devil. United Artists.

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[1] Such critical tactics are ironic given Herzog’s self-reflexive stance towards the realist strategies he routinely deploys. Evident here, for example, in his penchant for testing the credulity of the audience, such as the apocryphal story about albino alligators mutated by radiation that concludes Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

[2] For a discussion of debates surrounding the value of negative and positive parallax, see Barbara Klinger, “Beyond Cheap Thrills: 3D Cinema Today, The Parallax Debates, and the ‘Pop-Out’” (2013).

[3] Over the span of his life, Georges Bataille produced a collection of short essays and talks on prehistoric cave art (from 1930 to 1957) compiled in The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture (2005). However, his Theory of Religion (1989) reproduces many of these ideas in more systematic form, especially with regards to the relationship between tool use, language, and the emergence of human consciousness.

[4] She refers specifically to Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson, 1950), Thérèse (Alain Cavalier, 1986) and Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987).

Bio: Kevin Fisher is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media, Film & Communication at the University of Otago. His research interests include phenomenology, special effects and audio-visual analysis, and documentary. His essays have appeared in the anthologies Meta-Morphing (2000), The Lord of the Rings: Studying the Event Film (2007), Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2008) and The Fourth Eye: Mäori Media in Aotearoa/New Zealand (2014) as well as journals such as Science Fiction Film & Television and The New Review of Film and Television and The New Zealand Journal of Media Studies.


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