Not every film attempts to locate the “birth[place] of the human soul,” and thinks that perhaps it’s found it. But when director Werner Herzog asks a paleontologist in Cave of Forgotten Dreams if that’s what the Chauvet cave in southeastern France, with its magnificent walls of paintings, represents, you don’t feel that the German director and cinematic adventurer is overstating the case.
Chauvet could well represent a kind of atelier where early man painted our humanity — our ability to represent animals, and not just be one of them — into being.
The cave was discovered in the mid-1990s by a trio of French spelunkers. They were overwhelmed by the 30,000-year-old (give or take) art they found on its undulating walls. And I use the word “art” advisedly. The depictions — mostly of animals, some of interspecies sex acts between man and beast — that these early humans created are anything but crude. One artist even left behind a series of handprints, presumably as a kind of signature.
The French government immediately closed the cave to everyone but a small group of investigators, but granted Herzog’s petition that he be allowed to bring a small film crew to join them.
Chauvet is obvious material for Herzog, who, in documentaries such as Grizzly Man, has explored life on various boundaries. Here he’s once again asking what it was like to live among bears — bear skulls litter the cave, and paintings of bears adorn the walls — and also among woolly rhinos (their former existence was a revelation to me) and wolves and horses. He’s asking what it was like to live on the edge of human time, when our “souls” were being created.
Or perhaps when we were in the process of creating them. Herzog’s question to the paleontologist is rhetorical, of course. How could a scientist — even one who used to be a circus performer, as one paleontologist here was — answer the “is-this-where-we-created-our-souls” query with anything but “I don’t know?”
Still, the question is thrilling, and the visuals that Herzog presents live up to its drama. I was skeptical at first about his use of 3D, which has come to seem like a crutch for filmmakers who, unlike Herzog, don’t really have any ideas. But without 3D the film would make little impact.
Herzog and his crew were restricted to using just a small camera and very low-level lighting, and they had to stand on a walkway built for the scientists a few feet away from the paintings. So in 2D the images might scarcely have registered, but with your glasses on the animal depictions are vivid (the cave was sealed off 20,000 years ago by a landslide, so its interior is pristine), and emotionally moving. They’re also “moving” visually, as Herzog points out that the artists’ ability to depict motion amounts to a kind of “proto-cinema.”
3D also allows Herzog to trace the curves and nooks of the cave’s interior, and to let you linger over its stalactites and stalagmites. Taken together, the cave feels like a precursor to Gaudi, and is imbued with a haunting spirituality. When Herzog and some of the investigators say they feel they’re being watched by the spirits of those shamans and artists of so very long ago, you believe them.
Herzog leavens the heaviness with some playful moments, as when a perfume maker and amateur paleontologist looks for as-yet-undiscovered caves by literally sniffing for them. And one scientist’s attempt to launch a spear using millennia-old technology is good for a smile.
Most astoundingly, Herzog takes us to a nearby nuclear power plant, where the cooling water has been used to create a tropical habitat, complete with crocodiles, many of them albino. By showing us this profound transformation of the area, from the glaciers of long ago to the artificially created tropics of today, Herzog gives present-day Homo sapiens a specific place on the earth’s timeline.
Everything changes: the woolly rhino disappears to be replaced by a white crocodile. The glaciers melt into the tropics.
Where does that leave us? Good question. Perhaps a crocodile of the future will marvel at Herzog’s film.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing at AMC Studio 30.