The circumstances surrounding the preservation and subsequent discovery of the Chauvet Cave in Southern France is the stuff of legend. Imagine a cave used by primitive man (for whatever reason) some 32,000 years ago, and then sealed shut in a landslide about 7,000 years later – indeed how these folks accessed the cave to begin with would be a film in itself. The cave remained shut until 1994 when French scientists searching the hillside for evidence of a cave – one pictures them using a stud finder or knocking on the rocks intermittently (a classically Herzogian image if it were true) – happened upon an alternate entrance. This entrance was guarded by the narrowest of openings – barely narrow enough to squeeze through. We are touching discovery and truth at the edge of human discovery – and when we are at the edge of such things – there is a pretty good chance that the great Werner Herzog will be nearby.
In Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we get a sense of the remoteness of the caves as he and his crew follow the French scientists studying the cave in. We feel the claustrophobia as he squeezes into the opening and see the drop in elevation from this entrance to get to the cave itself. He and his crew are only allowed to stay on the installed aluminum walkway, a walkway so narrow that Herzog and his crew cannot escape appearing in many of their shots. To avoid damaging the inside and the paintings only four battery operated light panels can be used to shoot. But when we get there … what we see is awesome – cave paintings, paintings of surprising detail, paintings that date as far back as 32,000 years ago – the oldest paintings known to exist.
To underline the paintings and the cave itself, Herzog shoots in 3-D – the best use of the medium I’ve ever seen. Normally I complain about 3-D as a gimmick that muddies up what we can see, but here the 3-D and the ability to manipulate depth and space is crucial. Herzog is not just adopting it so he can make $4 more per ticket, but so that we get a real sense of the z-axis, the contours of the walls, the real sense that we are staring over his shoulder at the painting. When we an image of horses, we can see how the rock bends inward and out (like a little bowl sort of effect) and its effect on the image. When we see the feet of the painting it suggests movement, and you can’t help but picture the horses moving. Other paintings suggest movement more firmly – as if it were a cel in a flipbook or something. The most striking example of the 3-D at work for me is when we see an image with a bison and a woman. Due to the restrictions in the room, Herzog cannot shoot close to the painting, but he can put a camera on a string. We see a part of the image initially (and more with the string) but with the sharp sense of space, I found myself straining a bit trying to look around to see where the drawing extends to on the other side.
We also see evidence of the people inside the caves so many years ago. In one great sequence we notice a handprint near the front, with a crooked finger – and that same distinct handprint a few minutes later – we’ve followed the person’s path. We see handprints and sculptures – artifacts which match stuff in caves found well up the road. One of the scientists plays us a familiar tune with a flute rescued from there. We also get a sense of how the people then hunted. Slowly, with all of these facts, we get an image of what life could have been like for these people in that time and place. Granted, much conjecture is necessary. Will we know what these people hoped for, what they dreamt about? They have been gone a long time, and no carbon dating can capture that. These sorts of thoughts are what sail through one’s head when such a perfect time capsule as these caves are unearthed. Definitely pay the extra $4 this time – it is worth it.