Werner Herzog could make a documentary about anything. If he and his crew filmed me visiting Lidl this morning for some Polish ravioli, the resulting doco would be filled with pathos, wanderlust and a burning desire to understand the human condition. The checkout lady would be loveable, eccentric and knowing, and each aisle would be new realm of fascinating and undiscovered exotica.
It’s no wonder then that when he turns his camera to a 32,000-year-old cave, sealed by a rockslide for thousands of years and covered in hundreds of beautiful, ancient cave paintings, pathos is what you get. That, and stupid 3D glasses.
Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc in the south of France is a Paleolithic time capsule. Discovered in 1994, it houses the oldest known cave paintings in the world, mostly vivid representations of long-extinct creatures. Herzog’s team are the first film crew to be allowed past the bolted iron door, along the metal runway (installed to protect the soft floor, which carries the earliest known human footprints) and into the depths of the cave. Even human breath could damage the paintings, so only a handful of researchers have ever seen the images in person before.
Through cramped corridors and into vast chasms by torchlight, they discover handprints, panthers, hyenas and wild horses. Trying to comprehend the timescale of the paintings is brain-liquifying; they were painted over a period of 10,000 years, 32,000 years ago. Rather than the sunny southern France we know and holiday in, the area was in the throes of the ice age. Neanderthals still populated nearby hills, and yet, Herzog captures the animals looking eerily recent. As he points out; “they could have been painted yesterday.”
On a piece of rock dangling from the ceiling in the furthest reaches of the cave are the legs and genitals of a woman – the only representation of a human, a Paleolithic venus, drawn on the cave equivalent of a top shelf.
At every step Herzog is conscious that he is treading on ancient toes. At one point he asks, in his incredible German accent: “Quiet please. Let us all take a minute to listen to the silence of the cave,” (this is followed by a minute or two of cave soundscape (drips), and shots of crew members trying not to giggle. The deeper he takes us into the bowels of the cave, the more mystifying the images on the walls become; an unidentifiable butterfly-like creature, more abstract, ritualistic shapes. On a piece of rock dangling from the ceiling in the furthest reaches of the cave are the legs and genitals of a woman – the only representation of a human, a Paleolithic venus, drawn on the cave equivalent of a top shelf.
Herzog also introduces us to the charming scientists that study the cave. This includes the discoverer, an ex-circus performer and an archeologist interested in “living history.” The latter manages to play ‘star spangled banner’ on a flute made from bone, whilst dressed in a hoodie made from reindeer hide. As ever, Herzog’s choice of experts is based on whimsy as much as fact. The story is spellbinding, and as he asks questions of art and “humanness,” Herzog’s curiosity pushes the scientists to consider whether these paintings ultimately mark the beginning of the human race. They’re flummoxed – but, as you might have guessed, he was never expecting an answer.
This may be the first time in a long time that 3D is employed for pure artistic effect, and the first time ever that it truly works. The contours of the cave walls give the animals a 3D effect when viewed in person, and watching the film in three dimensions practically re-writes the rulebook on ‘immersive filmmaking’. You get the feeling Herzog could have produced the film in smell-o-rama and it wouldn’t lose credibility.
Considering we’ve got Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Spy Kids 4, Transformers 4 and Final Destination 5 clogging up the multiplex 3D screens this year, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is more than worth seeking out at your local independent cinema, despite having to suffer the indignity of putting on headgear akin to Jordie La Forge’s visor. It’s one of those films that sticks to your subconscious. Plus, as he’s the thinking man’s Arnie, you’re guaranteed to be doing Bavarian-born Herzog impressions all the way home.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is released on March 25th
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