“Are we today the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time when we see the paintings of Chauvet cave?”
Finally, a Werner Herzog film (there are plenty more to come) – one of his most recent, and his only venture into 3D. Cave of Forgotten Dreams arrived on the big screen just as the arthouse cinemas were admitting defeat and installing 3D-ready projectors and screens, but I have to admit that, having watched it in both formats now, something is actually lost in the 2D version. Generally, I believe that 3D should only be used as a gimmick – at least when it’s used in films like Piranha 3D and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas you know you’re going to get your money’s worth. 3D is, and always will be, a gimmick, so if there aren’t things flying out of the screen towards my face, generally I’m not interested. Herzog doesn’t throw anything at our faces here, but his subject matter – the spectacular cave paintings found, perfectly preserved, in 1994 at what are now called the Chauvet Caves in France – really benefits from that third dimension. In his narration, Herzog talks about how the painters used the undulations of the cave walls in their art; he attempts to recreate the flickering light of a fire to show how the pictures move and warp. In 2D it’s fairly easy to imagine, but in 3D – as loathe as I am to admit it – the effect is truly realised.
The Chauvet Cave paintings, the oldest known in the world, are somewhere in the region of 32 000 years old. Found in 1994 by three explorers, access is now severely limited – this is no tourist trap, but a carefully, meticulously examined and preserved site of huge importance. Protected by a landslide thousands of years ago, the cave is pristine – the floor is littered with the bones of long-extinct animals, now covered with a fine dusting of calcite, making everything sparkle. The paintings themselves – dozens of beautiful renditions of animals – are so fresh that, when they were found, they were suspected to be a hoax.
Herzog’s film offers people a rare opportunity to see such important works. With other cave paintings destroyed by mould that grew as a result of tourists’ breath, there’s no chance that us regular folk will ever be granted access. Herzog secured his visits by agreeing to take only one euro in payment, and his film was sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. Using stringent methods, there’s a rawness to the resulting film – its guerilla-style filmmaking reminded me of one of Herzog’s early documentaries, the stunning La Soufriere, in which the director and a few friends travel to a small island about to be devastated by a volcanic eruption. The space inside the caves is often cramped and restricted so, as Herzog acknowledges, the tiny film crew (only four people for the interior shots) cannot avoid being captured on screen also. Their equipment is rudimentary, restricted so as to cause the least amount of damage to the paintings (it should be said that the sometimes shaky, hand-cam footage does not work in 3D at all).
Once in the caves, however, Herzog allows the paintings to be the star of his film. Long sequences pass by without comment, punctuated by the director’s trademark soundtrack, composed by long-standing collaborator Ernst Reijseger. The haunting orchestral score imbues the images, and the cave itself, with an solemnity – almost a spiritualism – and it becomes easy to imagine the space being once not only a special, but a sacred, place for the people who so carefully daubed the walls. These moments quietly ask for contemplation, and the absence of narration gave us time to discuss the implications of the images on screen. The paintings are stunning, perfectly capturing not just the physicality of these animals (bison, lions, bears, and horses, among others – there is one human on the walls, tantalisingly concealed behind a rock, but it’s the only painting that, to me, doesn’t immediately make obvious what its subject matter is. Is it really the lower half of a woman, with a bison head? The bison part is clear, but I remain sceptical of the rest – perhaps we’re just desperate to be represented) but their essence – they come to life on the walls. Yet there is so much more to them. Herzog doesn’t comment on the fact that the cave has now been sealed off from the world, perfectly, artificially preserved, but it seems particularly pertinent when he acknowledges that some of the paintings appear to have been done five thousand years apart. To put that into perspective – just over two hundred years ago, the Lewis and Clark Expedition set off to discover whether it was possible to reach the west coast of America. There wasn’t even a road, and now there’s LA – in the Chauvet Caves, five thousand years passed, and someone returned to add to the artwork. My brain cannot comprehend such vast swathes of time. Can you imagine someone going and touching up the Mona Lisa, or The Last Supper? Today, what is sacred is preserved, remaining untouched and hidden away from prying eyes or errant hands – it’s a curious aspect of humanity that, I guess, simply wasn’t a factor so many millennia ago.
He might not specifically question this, but it is still a Herzog documentary and, naturally, his interests are varied and obscure. He spends time considering “humanness” – what makes us human, whether these cave paintings are the first physical indication of the discovery of a soul. His interviews with scientists and archaeologists tends to deviate from specifically relevant information – he asks about their dreams after first seeing the paintings, talks to an “experimental” archaeologist and a perfumer trying to locate new caves using his sense of smell. Perhaps because he is just incapable of not adding his touch of Herzog-weirdness (or perhaps because we all expect it now), the film’s post-script features mutant albino crocodiles (mentioned in pretty much every review of the film) now living in an artificial nuclear biosphere a few miles away from the caves. Yet really the film is not about this strangeness, but about the paintings, and he presents them with a reverence that indicates his respect for such important works. For Herzog, the paintings are a key moment in human development, bringing beauty and life to the world like the opera does today. They might be hidden away from the hazards of flash photography, grubby shoes, and pesky carbon dioxide, but Herzog brings them back into the light, allowing us all to bear witness to what is arguably one of the most important cultural discoveries ever.