By Eric Plaag
If you are a veteran of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, it may not surprise you at all that his newest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D, ends not by contemplating the meaning of the 32,000-year-old cave paintings that are the subject of his passionate documentary but instead by focusing on a collection of radioactive, albino crocodiles housed nearby. This is the way Herzog’s mind works: By juxtaposing one completely unexpected and extraordinary collection with another, he allows us to find meanings that we might not normally consider on our own. He also makes us laugh out loud, not at him, necessarily, but more “near” him, in that he dares to think out loud about what the rest of us would never find the courage to express on our own. And that, frankly, seems a little weird and unsettling to most of us.
Herzog’s latest visual and existential treat is an exploration of the remarkable art found in the caverns at Chauvet in southern France, where a team of explorers stumbled upon the cave during an expedition in 1994. Here they found primitive cave paintings more than twice as old as any found elsewhere in the world. Covering walls of a subterranean room more than 1300 feet long, the paintings feature images of bears, bison, lions, leopards, reindeer, rhinos, horses, wolves, ibexes (wild goats), hyena, and golden eagles. That many of these species are not known by most of us to have existed in the wild on the European continent is testament to how little we may have thought we knew about the complex biomass occupying that continent pre-Ice Age, as well as the human beings who populated the region.
In that cave at Chauvet, these astonishing animals come to life with movement, painted in such a sophisticated manner that the play of light upon the walls and their layered outlines amplifies the sense of their motion. The supple contours of the walls bring shape to their outlines, causing them to seem to dance as one passes them. Meanwhile, scattered along the floor of the cave are the bones from the carcasses of many of these species, most of them dragged into the cave by the bears who once resided there and have left their scratch marks on the walls over these paintings. Curiously, though, not a single human bone has been found inside, even though there are clear signs of the cave’s use as a site for primitive religious rites. Researchers have found the footprint of an eight-year-old boy, though, located immediately adjacent to that of a wolf, both of them tens of thousands of years old.
Also present in the cave is a series of painted handprints belonging to a single artist, as well as what may be the first painting of a nude woman, known to experts as a Venus figure. While Herzog makes clear that the works in the cave are the creations of dozens of artists over thousands of years, he also deftly emphasizes that what is visible to the naked eye is only half of what is painted on the walls. Employing digital technology, Herzog shows the paintings underneath of paintings that have been discovered by researchers, as well as how digital mapping technology will be used in the near future to create a tourist attraction that will allow the curious to explore a nearly exact replica of the cave replete with copies of the paintings.
This need for a replica underscores how remarkable Herzog’s footage is. After its discovery, Chauvet was closed to all but a small group of scientists who spend very limited periods of time in its environs. Not only are poisonous radon and carbon dioxide a persistent threat to researchers, but the visitors themselves pose a devastating risk to the cave’s wonders, whether it be from mold produced by bacteria in their breath or from bacteria on their skin if they stumble and touch the rock formations inside. Herzog’s crew was the first ever to be given permission to film inside the cave and may very well be the last, and limitations on time and equipment meant that his first journey into its bowels had to be shot on what Herzog describes as a “non-professional camera.” How Herzog pulled off securing permission for a second visit with a camera that would allow him to shoot in 3D (rather than altering conventional footage, as is done for much of the first half of the film, sometimes with mixed results) remains a mystery, but he certainly had the gods on his side when he did. The result is a roughly seven-minute sequence near the film’s end showing the most impressive features of the cave in astounding detail, all of it with no narration and only the accompaniment of music and the steady beat of a human heart.
This last bit is trademark Herzog, harkening back to a moment early in the film when he asks us to remain silent (as if we are in the cave with him), listen to the sounds of the cave, and perhaps even hear our own heartbeats. Astonishingly, the movie audience in my packed showing complied with pristine silence. No rustling popcorn. No whispers. Herzog then layered the sound of a human heart onto the soundtrack, followed by the questions, “Is this their heartbeat or ours? Will we ever be able to understand?” Asked recently by Stephen Colbert about the ethics of this kind of “inventive” filmmaking within the documentary genre, Herzog admitted no shame about playing with the truth in his films. “I want the audience with me in wild fantasies of something that illuminates them,” he explained. “You see, if I were only fact-based, the book of books in literature then would be the Manhattan phone directory. Four million entries, everything correct, but…I do not know, do they dream at night? Does Mr. Jonathan Smith cry in his pillow at night? We do not know anything when we check all of the correct entries in the phone directory.”
In a similar vein, Herzog teases out of Chauvet’s researchers some strange but ultimately provocative observations. After some dogged questioning from Herzog, one team member acknowledges that he had to stop going into the cave after five days in a row of working there, citing the vivid dreams he had of lions and of the paintings of the lions themselves coming to life. Herzog himself admits that the cave has a remarkable effect on the psyche, prompting him to feel at times as though he was interrupting the ancient cave painters in their work, as though their eyes were constantly upon the camera crew, a sensation relieved only by once again climbing to the surface.
But Herzog’s best moments come when he asks us to consider the greater significance of these discoveries. What does it mean, for example, that Neanderthals coexisted in the same geography with Homo Sapiens who were making cave paintings, yet no Neanderthal paintings have ever been found? Given the presence of an altar tens of thousands of years old in the cave, should we rename our species Homo Spiritualis rather than Homo Sapiens? And what constitutes humanness? Perhaps it is no shock that Herzog revealed to Colbert, “I do believe that these very intelligent people invented God, but it took God a while to grow up and create the world.” Ponder that for a while.
And then there are those radioactive, albino crocodiles. I won’t tell you why they’re there or what questions Herzog asks us to consider about their existence. That would ruin the fun. Some may choose to dismiss Herzog as a nut, or a fraud, or at the very least a man too much in love with his own enthusiastic, voracious mind. I disagree, because I know exactly how his questions about those crocodiles played upon my psyche, my fears about how small I am in the grand scale of things, and my insecurities about finding meaning in my personal experience vis-à-vis the rest of the human condition. Those crocodiles will be in my subconscious for a long time. And Werner Herzog is a certifiable genius.
Theaters, 5 out of 5 stars