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In 1994, a group of scientists discovered a cave in Southern France perfectly preserved for over 20,000 years and containing the earliest known human paintings. Knowing the cultural significance that the Chauvet Cave holds, the French government immediately cut-off all access to it, save a few archaeologists and paleontologists. But documentary filmmaker, Werner Herzog, has been given limited access, and now we get to go inside examining beautiful artwork created by our ancient ancestors around 32,000 years ago. He asks questions to various historians and scientists about what these humans would have been like and trying to build a bridge from the past to the present. Written by
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.
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I loved this movie -- I mean, I was just enchanted. It was everything I'd hoped it would be and more. My friends whined about this and that -- the music was discordant, the camera-work was too shaky, what was the deal with the albino crocodiles, etc. etc. and so forth. Bleh. What do they know?
Werner Herzog has filmed a 3-D documentary at Chauvet Cave in southern France, location of the oldest known artwork on the planet. Surely you've seen pictures? The cave walls are covered with prehistoric renderings of bison and bears and lions and horses and woolly rhinoceroses and more -- all drawn in a similar style over 30,000 years ago with the sure hand of accomplished artists skilled in techniques of shading and placement and composition. Astonishingly, while these days we seem to move from realism to impressionism to cubism to whateverism at the drop of a decade, scientists seem certain that some of the stylistically identical Chauvet Cave images were created as much as 5,000 years apart.
And what wonderful images they are! Even on the pages of the National Geographic the lions roar ferociously and the horses neigh in terror and the rhinoceroses battle to the death while the bison gallop away in a prehistoric stampede. But Herzog has given us more than a mere magazine can manage -- he's brought life to animals in Chauvet Cave through the magic of the 3-D process.
Yes, I know, 3-D sucks. But in this film 3-D isn't just a gimmick -- the process actually pays off. Of course I'd seen 2-D pictures of Chauvet Cave, but until seeing this film I'd never understood how much the walls of the cave undulate, and more important, how the paintings take advantage of all those curvy surfaces. The muscles of the lion ripple with the cave walls; the body of the bison is placed perfectly so that as the rock turns at a sharp angle, the animal's head can be drawn to face the viewer -- in 3-D the cave seems miraculously to come to life.
Chauvet Cave was discovered in 1994 and for a time the public could visit. But it soon became apparent that human intrusions were changing the atmosphere of the cave, as mold began growing on the walls, and the precious art that had survived in pristine peace for thirty millennia was being threatened. Now the French government has wisely, blessedly closed the place to the public. Herzog and his crew were allowed to enter only for a limited time with limited gear, and from the sound of it this filmed record may be the best we'll see for quite a while.
I was fascinated by the whole thing and I wish I had a way to thank Werner Herzog personally for taking me to a magical place I regret I'll never be able to visit. I think that theme park they're planning to build nearby -- the one at which they'll recreate the cave for tourists -- probably wouldn't do much for me. This film, though, was a very welcome, quite unforgettable experience.
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