Meeting Our Ancient Ancestors
T he prehistoric paintings in the Chauvet caves in southern France are among the greatest treasures of human civilization, and they are shut away from most people: the 32,000-year-old images are far too fragile to withstand mobs of tourists tromped past them, and breathing on them, and contaminating them with mold spores and germs. And yet, everyone should see them, and make that remarkable connection to the distant past, and to people almost unimaginably different from us and yet so very much the same as us, too.
With Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, both noble aims are satisfied. Working under austere conditions — limited crew with limited time in the caves and some restrictions on movement within them — in order to minimize any damage to these irreplaceable and still pristine artifacts, Herzog has nevertheless achieved something extraordinary with his intimate look at what he calls “one of the greatest discoveries in this history of human culture.”
It’s hard to argue with that contention, on any level. The paintings are twice as old as the previous oldest-ever works of cave art, so they would be notable just for their age alone. The experts to whom Herzog introduces us, those who are working on preserving the caves and studying the works, are infectiously passionate about explaining their historic and artistic value. As a portrait in scientific enthusiasm, Cave is outstanding.
We witness, too, Herzog’s passion and excitement in getting to walk through a space that, apart from these few specialists, hasn’t been trod by human feet or seen by human eyes in 32,000 years. There is no filmmaking artifice here: the caves are so small, and the protective metal walkway they must follow is so narrow that it’s impossible for Herzog and his small team to get out of their own shots. Cave is, on multiple levels, about people looking at the paintings, people inhabiting these caves. The humanity of everything on display here is inescapable, and it serves as a startling undercurrent to everything we see here: that this cave has always been a place that human people valued.
But then, Herzog steps back from his own charmingly kooky narration, in which he has been philosophizing about the hopes and dreams of those who made these paintings so long ago, and just lets us see. Slow, silent pans around the cave animate the physical power and grace of the herds of animals depicted: there is weight and movement to these lions and bison and other creatures. There is an astonishing vividness to what appear to be, at first, very simple images, and — more astonishingly — as they as begin to flicker in the low light, herds of animals appearing to thunder across the walls, we realize we are looking at the first cinema.
More wonderful still: Herzog shot in 3D. This may be the first absolutely essential 3D movie, one that you must see in 3D to appreciate its full potency, and the full impact of what Herzog deems a “frozen flash of a moment in time” brought back to living, breathing life.
Until the Chauvet caves can be reproduced in virtual reality — which is on the agenda; the entire cave system has been laser-scanned in minute detail for future use — this is as close as any of us will ever get to touching the hopes and dreams of our most ancient ancestors.