Enrique Castro Ríos
Trailer for Die Höhle der vergessenen Träume / Cave of Forgotten Dreams, France-Germany 2010, directed by Werner Herzog. IFC Films, YouTube

Cinema is life, we have stated. But, alas, where cometh life from, and where, cinema? Considering myself a spiritual rather than a religious person, I leave the first question in the hands of science, since creationism in its infinite variations is quite interesting as a metaphor for what actually occurred and even as cinematic trope, period. Understanding it literally and not spiritually saps it of its mysticism and poetry. In German, Italian, Scientific and Spanish, basta. Scientists, more so than the apostles,[1] work with facts, facts based on evidence, even when they are the first to recognize that much remains to be understood. 

So what are the facts and what is the evidence regarding the origin of cinema? I agree with controversial German filmmaker Werner Herzog[2] when he reflects that cinema goes back far beyond the first commercial screening of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s cinématograph at the Salon Indien of the Grand Café in Paris on Saturday, 28 December 1895.[3] Thirty-two thousand years beyond, to be exact; I cannot quote the day of the week or the month of the year but I can cite the place: Chauvet Cave near Pont-d'Arc in southern France, a cavern that stars in and drives, as if it were alive, Herzog’s impressive documentary, Die Höhle der vergessenen Träume (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, France-Germany, 2010).[4] On Chauvet’s rugged walls, human beings, specifically us poorly named Homo sapiens, captured the images of enormous herds of horses, bison, mammoths, megaloceros, caribou, leopards, panthers, woolly rhinos, cave lions and cave bears, ibexes, antelopes, wolves, primal cattle and other large mammals with whom they then shared the planet, but also butterflies, a minotaur, a woman; paintings that were preserved as if freshly traced when a rockslide sealed the cave twenty thousand years ago. Similar to the cave representation of a wild boar in Altamira, Spain, painted more than fifteen thousand years later, the spectacular images of Chauvet include an eight-legged bison —Palaeolithic Sleipnir,[5] the octoped horse with which Odin[6] rides to the fringes of the Nordic universe— and a woolly rhino with infinite horns and backs. Herzog, like the select group of scientists with whom he visits Chauvet in 2010, even like the four adolescents who stumbled upon Lascaux in 1940,[7] concludes that when lit by the flickering flames of human-made bonfires and torches thirty-two millennia ago, these images reverberated the illusion of kinema or movement and became animated —literally, infused with breath, with soul— in what he calls “proto-cinema”. Even today, under the crude light of their researchers’ helmet lamps, this extinct fauna once again gallops the jagged screens of the cinema paradiso of Chauvet. 

Cinema is moving the image to move the soul.

However, cinema as treble human illusion —as deception, as desire, as cognitive process— goes back much further, dare I say, to even before we were human, that is, hominins, or for that matter, even mammals. For cinema cometh forth from dreaming, nightdreaming mostly but daydreaming as well, and I have seen a sleeping mastiff run in his dreams, dreaming about dreaming about running, his fat legs aping the paleo-cosmic gallop of the Sleipnir at Chauvet. And indeed dream and cinema —true cinema, the cinema of cinema halls or even more so of the nearly extinct movie palaces— share similarities galore, from setting you “passively” in a dark chamber to observe a faint illusion of lights and shadows, tucked up by your suspension of disbelief;[8] to evoking —as something bigger than you, as a species, as Life itself— a collective experience and unconscious. In the words of Julien Monney, a young archaeologist at Chauvet whom Herzog interviews, who had to pause his visits to the cavern because of the ceaseless dreams it provoked in him night after night with both real and represented lions, the cave and its paintings —and dreams and cinema by extension— evoked “a feeling of powerful things, and deep things… A way to understand things which is not a direct way.”

Cinema is dreaming towards understanding.

Something primeval has driven us throughout our hominin existence to reproduce —and as we so much like to, to control— that nocturnal and diurnal dream experience until we arrived, three days after Christmas 1895, at cinema. Perhaps it all began when the Homo sapiens at Chauvet or at another cavern in Kenya or Indonesia, or their contemporary neanderthalensis,[9] were flabbergasted at the sight of an inverted image, alive and mobile, projected on a wall of the cave they inhabited, primal camera obscura caused by a hole in the hide with which they protected the entrance to their cave.[10] I witnessed such a phenomenon one night in an old house with doors without door handles. As happens within the vaults of our eyes, the light that sneaks through an orifice from a luminous environment into a dark chamber will bring with it the image of the luminescent world, head over heels and in kinesis, in movement. It’s in our brain, where we actually see, where we straighten our topsy-turvy ocular perceptions.

Or perhaps a jolt of amazement ran up the arms of our ancestors when, without premeditation or forethought, they sketched the sharp silhouette of a beast in the sands of the Ardèche River near Chauvet or of a river or a beach in Sulawesi[11] and understood, as spiritual yet unreligious Eves and Adams, that they had bitten the forbidden fruit of knowledge, and found themselves naked. The knowledge of communication through time and space. What followed was an explosion in human learning that has not stopped to this day and which today promises to either destroy life on earth as we know it or to finally deliver us to a world of social justice, if we are able to de-evolve from the Homo smartassus which we have become to the Homo spiritualis that the Research Director at Chauvet, Jean-Michel Geneste, argues we once were when we left our traces on those rugged cave walls. In his words to Herzog, “[…] the invention of the figuration, of the figuration of animals, of man, of things, it’s a way of communication between humans and with the future to evocate the past, to transmit information that is [much] better than language, than overall communication. And this invention is still the same in our world today, with this camera, for example.” Thus concludes Geneste, pointing at the camera that records him, camera lucida that traces binary brushstrokes on the cavernous walls of its electronic memory.

Cinema is tracing back the past to move forth.

But let’s return to the evidence, and specifically to an issue that fascinates and worries me, that cinema arises precisely from Europe, be it in Paris or Chauvet, or from the US as a cultural extension of Europe. In other words, that cinema, which I consider a tool for diversity and inclusion, is actually a weapon born from the thigh of the exclusionary 19th century Western civilization, despite the vast and various cultural heritage of the planet. Why? This, however, will have to wait until our next instalment. As the double-episodes of the dismal 80’s serials stated between chapters:


Enrique Castro Ríos
[email protected]

[1]   The pun works better in Spanish, where acts and facts are one and the same word.
[2]  https://www.wernerherzog.com
[3]  Strangely enough, cinema’s official birthday refers to the first commercial screening using the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, despite the fact that this camera-projector had been successfully used in several non-commercial public screenings. What does that tell us about what we value in cinema? Furthermore, a myriad previous discoveries paved the way to the Lumière’s cinematograph…
[4]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kULwsoCEd3g
[5]  https://mythology.net/norse/norse-creatures/sleipnir/, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/others/sleipnir/
[6]  https://mythology.net/norse/norse-gods/odin/, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/the-aesir-gods-and-goddes...
[7]  ‘Humans were not centre stage’: how ancient cave art puts us in our place
[8]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspension_of_disbelief, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-brain-activity-can-expla...
[9]  http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-neanderth...
[10]  http://www.ancient-cinema.org/index.php/2-uncategorised/54-paleolitic-ci..., http://paleo-camera.com
[11]  Sulawesi or Celebes, Indonesian island where the oldest narrative pictorial art has been discovered, up to now, at Leang Bulu’ Sipong Cave: https://www.google.com/url?client=internal-element-cse&cx=00746629409740...