Directed by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz
I went along to a showing of Werner Herzog's latest film at my local independent cinema The Electric Picture House, partly because I've been admirer of Herr Herzog for many years - even before he became known as the guy who got shot while being interviewed by Mark Kermode, partly because the EPH were showing it using their state-of-the-art 3D system, but mainly because I wanted to know if the director of Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu the Vampyre could sustain dramatic interest in a 90-minute film that, let's face it, is about a bunch of marks on a cave wall.
I should have known better. From the opening shot, I knew I was in safe hands. The camera glides between lines of vines growing in the Ardèche region of the French countryside before suddenly soaring up to reveal the river and majestic cliffs of the Combe d'Arc. Herzog's gentle voice tells us about the adventure we're about to embark upon, sparked less than twenty years ago by the discovery of a cave which has become a national treasure. We learn from Herzog how the cave was discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet and his two friends, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire. It's been named the Chauvet cave in his honour. We join Herzog as he enters the cave for the first time, using Go-Pro cameras to reconnoitre the place and record first impressions before filming begins in earnest with high-end gear. Even with consumer-grade equipment, the reveal of exactly why the cave is regarded so highly is a stunning moment: the drawings of horses, rhinos, mammoths, lions and antelopes rendered in crisp black against an almost pristine white background has a power that trancends any amount of exploding robots, crashing cars or computer-generated imagery that Hollywood can inflict on us.
Even the idea of shooting the film in 3D - which apparently Herzog initially resisted, then enthusiastically embraced - makes perfect sense when you find yourself looking through the depths of one of the larger caverns. Herzog's team illuminate stalacmites and stalactites with their cold-light flat panel lamps and the scale of the place becomes clear. The 3D brings out the texture of the cave walls and floor, and the macro qualities of the camera's gaze lend things a spectacular, hyper-real quality that is utterly absent from CGI creations. The hand-held lights and cameras produce a nervous, shifting image that conveys the dynamic pictures in a way that, it's suggested, duplicates how their creators would have viewed things millenia ago - lit by flickering torches and fires. These animals are not cold or static, but vibrant and animated.
As the film progresses we learn that these images are the earliest cave paintings ever recorded - carbon dating revealed that the oldest were made some 32,000 years ago. Then Herzog adds the most amazing piece of information: other paintings in the cave were added more than five thousand years later. There is a continuity of activity here that makes all the achievements of modern civilisation look like fleeting trivia. Yet despite the enormous timescales involved, the film unearths the human stories behind this deep expanse of time, revealing the part that just one man with a crooked little finger played in the activities that took place so long ago.
The film is a masterclass in film making, in archaeology, and in social commentary. Herzog transcends severe restrictions of both time and space in what he was able to film. He makes use of state-of-the-art technology to deliver some truly breathtaking shots (helped in no small part by British Technical Films's Skybot Mk2 robotic camera platform). He lets the experts talk about what they've found and the work they're engaged in, but this is no dry scientific documentary. The film's emotional depth puts much of the modern media to shame, poking fun at (but also drawing surprising parallels with) television superfluities like Baywatch. Were these first examples of representational art a sign of a dawning spirituality? The film also uses the cave walls to underscore the frailty of human existence; many of the paintings were made on walls that also bear the scratches made by cave bears, scratches that both pre-date and post-date the art itself.
Above anything else though, the film is a celebration of truly exceptional artistry. The group of charging horses, their mouths open as they rush across the cave wall past the observer, are brilliantly rendered. The profiles of cave lions are executed with an eye for detail and anatomy that would be the envy of any fine arts student. The scale of the talent of those unknown people and the legacy they have left for us is truly humbling.
If you get a chance to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D, make sure you take it. You will not be disappointed.
Chris's rating: Five Stars