“In a forbidden recess of the cave, there’s a footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart? We’ll never know.” — Werner Herzog, narrating his astounding documentary about the Chauvet Cave, which was discovered in 1994 above the Ardeche River in southern France
Thus far, the paintings on the walls inside the limestone Chauvet Cave are the oldest known artwork in existence. Nearly all are representations of animals: horses, rhinos, lions, bears, etc. (There is also a tall incomplete sculpture of a pair of legs and a vulva.) They have been “painted” using inks and dyes drawn from plants and animal blood. Radiocarbon dating has detected two groups of paintings, 35,000 years old and 30,000 years old. To simplify, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams employs a single composite dating: 32,000 years old. A landslide more than 20,000 years ago sealed the cave, preserving the art. Imposing stringent restrictions, France’s Ministry of Culture greenlighted Herzog’s exploratory excursion. Herzog was accompanied by a small film crew, including a cinematographer armed with a 3-D camera to capture better the relation between the art and the rough, bulging “canvas.”
The paintings are indeed vivid and magnificent, and one cannot help but imagine the ordeal of their creation on rocky surfaces by flickering torchlight. Herzog takes us back imaginatively across an almost unimaginable chasm of Time. There are surprises: abstract lines that appear more modern than Paleolithic; the duplication of a horse’s legs to indicate that the animal is in motion. Herzog, unable to resist, invokes in his narration the birth of the idea of animated cinema.
Herzog stresses the spiritual component of the art—how the art records the leaning in on each other of the animal/material and the spiritual worlds. We cannot help ourselves as we watch in wonder: we, too, participate in Herzog’s surmise of the sacred, aided and assisted by Ernst Reijseger’s haunting, gorgeous New Age music.
The snippets of interviews of scientists suggest how incapable they are to grapple with the mysteries and wonder into which the film moves us—and yet how capable they mistake themselves to be. They also are an endearing part of us, and we of them: the seduction toward scrutiny. Counterbalancing their desire to know is the film’s brilliant postscript, which confounds with its unexpected “dark side” of our unfettered wonder: a pair of albino crocodiles, mirror-images of each other and, possibly, of us, swimming in the run-off of a nuclear power plant near the cave. Will they swim into the Chauvet Cave—and, if they do, what will they see? Is our own perception of the art inside the cave at least partly determined by the inferior custodians of our world we have proven ourselves to be—an insurmountable burden of guilt in the Nuclear Age?
Still provoking us after all these years, Herzog has made an exceptionally beautiful film. It deserves its slew of Best Documentary prizes—from the National Society of Film Critics and critics’ groups in New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Washington, D.C.-area, Dallas-Fort Worth, Vancouver.
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