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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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The photography of the cave is amazing. Everyone should go see this film for its images. Herzog makes some really extravagant claims about the cultural significance of these paintings, and he might be right. Since the cave is closed to everyone except a handful of scholars, this film probably represents our only chance to see inside of the cave.
There's a moment in the film where Herzog talks about German Romanticism, and it seems to me that the film comes from a perspective that is very much informed by ideas from that movement. His analysis is emotional and sweeping, and not terribly rigorous. If you dig Joseph Campbell, you'll love this.
Even as I write this, I know it's not fair, but I sometimes have a hard time with that mythic Teutonic longing for the past. It all seems to be bound up in a big ball, the ugly political elements and anti-semitism, the creepy mysticism of the Jungians, etc. Despite all of that, you have to give a guy like Wagner his due, because he created some astonishing things by going down that road. Herzog himself has made some amazing films, and maybe movies like Aguirre came about in part because Herzog went down that road. I love that film.
But German Romanticism didn't produce any cave paintings, the idea that ideas of the people who made the Chauvet cave paintings more than 30,000 years ago had anything to do with the ideas of the German Romanticists is extremely implausible. It's shoddy thinking.
But if you buy into the reading that Herzog gives these paintings, it's a lot more natural to think that Wagner's Rhinemaidens represent an authentic connection to a mythic past, that they aren't anachronistic constructions of a Romantic movement that was very much a product of the 19th and 20th centuries. And if you believe that those ideas from German Romanticism are, in a sense, eternal and out of time, you imbue them with an authority they don't deserve. And that authority is probably going to spill over on to some of the uglier aspects of the German Romanticist program.
Herzog is so important to Americans who love art house cinema that he's kind of a sacred cow. I feel the same way about him. But the stuff he says here about the albino crocodiles just doesn't make any sense. It's not even like it's wrong -- it literally doesn't make any sense. At some point we have to stand up and admit the emperor has no clothes.
I'm being contrarian here. There's a lot to love in this movie, and I do think that everyone should see it.
There are paintings in that cave that have the most amazing, perfect lines. I don't what the people who made them were like, or why they made the paintings, or how they learned their technique.
But they're definitely something to see.
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