For filmmaker Werner Herzog, art is religion and movies, a search for “ecstatic truth.” All of which helps explain his desire to make a documentary out of the 30,000-year-old museum recently discovered in a vast limestone cave 300 miles from Paris.
There, before the Ice Age, Cro-Magnon man entered a dark, primitive theatre trimmed with calcite curtains, charcoal and blazing torch in hand, in search of appropriate crevices and swells onto which they might draw horses, bison and woolly mammoths. Some animals were depicted with mouths open and a blur of legs. Wave a light and the creatures come alive in a desperate stampede.
“Proto-cinema!” in Herzog’s words.
Elsewhere, artists found natural alters onto which they deposited animal skulls, making the darkened chamber both a theatre and place of worship.
Twenty-thousand years ago, the cave above the Ardèche River in southern France was sealed by a rockslide and so remained in pristine condition until 1994, when a trio of cavers, led by Jean-Marie Chauvet, squirmed through a small slit in a mountainside to explore a cool, inexplicable updraft of air. Waving flashlights, they came upon ancient wall murals – animals (some long extinct) flickering to life. Understanding the cinematic nature of their discovery, the French government allowed Herzog, a maverick seeker ( Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man), to share the epic find with film audiences.
The Chauvet Cave drawings are exquisite – graceful and ornate as Renaissance church frescos. Though more than 30,000 years old, the art would appear to have been created yesterday. We see a loose crumble of charcoal from a torch close to one drawing. The long-ago rockslide has left the site perfectly persevered.
Still, it is our tour guide that makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams an often thrilling experience. His producer, Erik Nelson, has joked Herzog is the first filmmaker to use 3-D for good, instead of evil. There is no question that the technology enhances our visit, giving perspective and shape to the jagged Chauvet Cave – an open mouth the size of a football field.
Herzog, the riddle-speaking philosopher also gives the movie a spiritual dimension. The German filmmaker has always been attracted to oddball dreamers. An early feature, Fitzcarraldo (1982), is the story of a mad man who dragged a giant steamship over a mountain. Here, he speaks with scientists and cave enthusiasts who, like him, are propelled by mystery and magic.
One researcher is a former circus performer; another, dressed in a reindeer-skin tunic, plays The Star-Spangled Banner on a flute carved from the radius of a vulture. We watch a French parfumeur sniff out a forest for caves.
Herzog talks to his subjects about God and religion. For it is his belief that the Chauvet Cave bears the first marks of civilization. “Is this the origin of the soul?” he asks one scientist of the cave art. Herzog recently elaborated on his film’s metaphysical quest on The Colbert Report, telling his comedian host, “These cavemen invented God, but it took God a while to invent the world.”
Eventually, we understand Herzog talks to eccentrics because he believes they form a kinship with the prehistoric virtuosos who made art and movies on torch-lit cave walls. His continuously absorbing film gets its money shot when Herzog asks one scientist why prehistoric man created animal art.
We asked the same question to Australian aboriginal artists in the 1970s, the researcher says. The artist shrugged, confused. “It’s the animals who are doing the painting,” he replied.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
- Written and directed by Werner Herzog
- Classification: G