by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Werner Herzog
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Filmmaker Werner Herzog is granted a rare opportunity to film a documentary inside France’s Chauvet Cave, where the walls are covered with the world’s oldest surviving paintings, dating back some 30,000 years.
Over the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some amazing places, including London, England, where we toured the famous Tower of London. When I lived in Virginia, we used to visit colonial Williamsburg, where some structures and artifacts exist from the 1600s. But at the Tower of London, we saw walls and structures that have existed since the 1400s. Six-hundred-plus years old, man! Wild! We saw Anne Boleyn’s final resting place. THE Anne Boleyn! Was buried right there. Freaky.
Then we traveled to Greece, and that really put the zap on me. We walk to the Acropolis and a tour guide tells us, “And that rock over there is Mars Hill, where the apostle Paul preached to the Greeks over two thousand years ago.” TWO THOUSAND YEARS. And in a museum, we saw artifacts dating back to 5,000 BCE, objects that were so old the archaeologists weren’t even sure what they were for. Religious totems? Toys for children? Purely decorative? Who knows? I love this kind of thing! Looking at things that have survived for millennia, created by people who were probably just satisfying a hobby, for all we know.
Now comes Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in which he was allowed to film inside the famous Chauvet Cave in France. Inside are the oldest known artistic renderings of any kind on the planet. How old? Approximately thirty thousand years old. To put that number in perspective, when Paleolithic humans made these paintings, the surrounding area was covered with a glacier that was so huge, when it finally melted, the ocean levels rose three hundred feet. A hunter could have crossed what is now the English Channel by walking on dry land from coast to coast. It’s an abyss of time that is utterly incomprehensible to me.
These paintings are indescribably cool to observe. I’d seen photos before, but to see them on film is an indescribably stirring experience. There are drawings of horses and wild rhinoceros that look as if they were drawn yesterday. One animal was drawn with a total of eight legs. A mistake? No. It was an attempt by the artist to convey movement or motion. PROTO CINEMA. Mind. Blown.
There are handprints by some of these drawings. Were they intended as a signature by the artist? Perhaps so, because further into the cave are more handprints by other drawings, and we can tell they’re handprints from the same person because of a crooked pinky finger. A maker’s mark from three hundred centuries ago.
I can’t stop. On the floor of the cave, nearly obscured by eons of calcification and crystals, are visible footprints of a wolf and a 7-year-old child. Was the wolf stalking the child as prey? Were they maybe companions? Or are the footprints separated by years, or decades, or centuries? Near what used to be the entrance to the cave – the actual entrance was blocked by a rockslide an unknown number of years ago – is a rock with a flat top like a table, and on the table, facing the entrance, is the skull of a cave bear. Traces of charcoal at the base hint that incense may have been burned there. Was this a temple? A holy place? Or did they just think it looked badass to have a skull on a table?
This stuff fascinated me. I found myself thinking about, of all things, a scene from Star Trek: First Contact, when Picard, having traveled back in time, is able to reach out and touch the very first vehicle to achieve warp speed. He explains to a confused Data that touching something old is a way of somehow reaching back across the centuries and identifying yourself with the people who created it.
That’s what these cave paintings are like. They’re a conduit back through time. Along with the paintings, archeologists also discovered remnants of what look like flutes. One enterprising guy recreates one of these instruments and plays it for the camera. Using a 30,000-year-old design, this guy knocks out the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner. On a flute made from BONE.
Why did Herzog even want to make this movie? To be a social activist? The cave is in no environmental or man-made danger. There are only two weeks out of every year when anyone is even allowed inside the place. He filmed it in 3-D. Was he looking for a fast buck by capitalizing on the 3-D craze around that part of the decade? It only grossed $5.2 million, a pittance, even by documentary standards. (Although that was the highest box-office return of any independently released documentary of 2011…so there’s that, I guess.)
So why do this? Because I believe Werner Herzog is one of the last remaining filmmakers who will make a film simply because he feels he must do so. He latches onto an idea, and it will not release him until he commits it to film. He doesn’t particularly care if it’s commercially viable or mainstream or anything. If he gets an idea (and the funding), he finds a way to get it filmed. It may not reach everyone, but you know what they say: “If you only reach one person, you succeeded.”
Man, did this reach me. I was fascinated from beginning to end. There’s one sequence that is nothing but, I think, 5 or 10 minutes of the camera simply regarding the paintings, slowly panning and tilting, just looking at them, while strange, but appropriate, music plays in the background. Under any other circumstances, this would be boring. Here, it was almost holy.