Review by Warren Fahy
Werner Herzog’s documentaries are always trenchant and satisfying, and his exploration of the ice age cave of Chauvet in southern France, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is no exception. Literally sniffed out by archeologists scouring cliff sides in a river valley as they felt along for any sign of subterranean exhalations emerging from the rocks, the Chauvet cave was inaccessible for 20,000 years. Inside was an untouched trove of art and remains an order of magnitude older than King Tut’s tomb.
Delving into the stuff of novels, Herzog tells the story of the cave’s exploration, which happened like the best of mysteries as the darkness literally gave up its secrets one veil at a time as the explorers journeyed deeper, finally reaching the original cave entrance that had been buried under an ancient avalanche. Soon they encounter glittering fossils of giant cave bears, some of which had been covered by calcium carbonate like honey drizzled from translucent stalactites. The remains tell of bears who lived and died whole lives in the cave, each separated perhaps by tens of thousands of years. Like the bears, the cave hyenas, mammoths, bison, wolves and lions whose bones litter the cave’s floor, are now extinct. Their footprints still imprint the petrified ash and soil on the cave floor. Out of the gloom, one of those first scientists to enter the cave pointed his flashlight at a flat surface on the wall ahead, and they saw that it was dotted with the red palm prints of a human being who had stood six feet tall as he pressed his hands on the wall over and over nearly 30,000 years ago.
Was it a stop sign?
Herzog goes where few will ever be lucky enough to journey, his minimal camera crew sticking to an aluminum catwalk two-feet wide. There, gallery after gallery of exquisite paintings bring the bones of the previous chambers to life like a natural history museum mural depicting a vanished world of giant rhinos charging, lions hunting (we now know that European lions had no mane because of these paintings), bison, deer, elk, mammoths, hyenas, leopards, a menagerie of overlapping profiles seemingly in motion. Dating has shown that one profile of an antelope was added behind another 5,000 years after the first was painted. A torch stroke, where ashes had been scraped off against a wall, dates back 28,000 years. Humans never lived in the cave. Their art is completely hidden from the sunlight, added over a period of 15 to 20 thousand years and dating back 37,000 years. The handprints reveal the artist’s broken little finger. One cave bear’s skull was propped onto a stalagmite, facing the cave entrance like a guardian in an Egyptian temple.
Herzog’s meandering, dream-like documentary winds through the river valley below the cave with side excursions to interview experts in various fields, who show us the most ancient European art, implements, and clues to human culture known to exist, some more than 40,000 years old (when we shared the valley with Neanderthals). But the real reason to see this documentary, which was released in 3D in 2010, 16 years after the cave was discovered, is to take in for yourself its revelations of human consciousness emerging in swirling figurative art rendered out of the void in animal images expertly mingled with the random cross-hatching of cave bear claw-marks and the bas relief folds of living rock. The images in this miraculous time capsule are more than any thriller writer could hope to get away with concocting – indeed, they were thought to be too perfect and a fraud until testing found that they had been coated by concretions that take thousands of years to form.
Already, since this documentary was released, discoveries made in caves in Spain appear to break the record for the oldest cave paintings at 40,800 years, some 4,000 years older than the oldest paintings in Chauvet. As well, these paintings appear to have been painted by Neanderthals – invalidating a few of the longheld beliefs about Neanderthals noted in Herzog’s documentary. While these recently discovered paintings introduce a host of intriguing questions Herzog would relish and invite wildly new interpretations of our history (did we, in fact, LEARN to make art from Neanderthals?), what is most impressive about Herzog’s film remains as enduring as the art it records and reveals. An exact replica of the cave some miles away from the real thing will be built to allow tourists to experience it. But the only way to see the real thing is to watch this rare documentary that Werner Herzog won the privilege of making. And I can’t think of a better guide.