The Chauvet cave system in the south of France was first explored in 1994 and was found to contain the earliest, and arguably most accomplished, prehistoric rock art ever discovered. This was a major find – the famous cave paintings at Lascaux are around 13,000 years old whereas some of those at Chauvet have been in existence for at least 30,000 years, making them the oldest surviving evidence of human culture by a margin of thousands of years. In addition, the caves are littered with unique geological formations and priceless remains of long-extinct animal species. The French government immediately took all the necessary steps to protect and preserve the site, which is highly vulnerable to the effects of human investigation. Even the breath of visitors is potentially dangerous as it would encourage mould to form and could disperse the fragments of charcoal from where the cave artists did their work, and treading on the soft floors could destroy evidence of animal tracks. A few narrow metal walkways have been lowered into position, but it’s still not possible to get within three metres or so from any of the artwork.
Until recently, only a handful of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists have been allowed access to the caves. A couple of years ago, however, the French ministry of culture did grant permission for a small film crew to enter in order for a visual record of the cave system to be captured. Happily (for me at least), the film-maker granted this honour was the legendary maverick Werner Herzog, who is no stranger to operating in extreme environments and recording unique and often perilous human experience. The decision was also made to film the caves in 3D, on the face of it a bizarre choice for a documentary, particularly one made by a director as famously dismissive of the gimmickry of modern culture as this one. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is the result of the somewhat restricted shooting time and conditions that Herzog had to operate under.
Given the cramped conditions, the fact that the film crew was limited to four people and the total lack of natural light down there, the sequences of this film shot in the caves look extraordinary. The chambers are sprawling, irregularly shaped and packed with visual wonders: protruding stalagmites as smooth as porcelain, delicate rippled curtains of rock, skeletons of animals that haven’t existed for millennia. The cave art is amazingly accomplished and elegant, often reminiscent of the work of early twentieth century artists exploring the possibility of depicting motion. Animals are typically rendered via clear, uncomplicated single strokes, with detail being reserved for the heads. They seem unfeasibly accurate once you start to think about the conditions they were drawn in, but dating of the silicate that has built up on them has established that they really do pre-date all other known human art. The walls of the chambers rarely present a flat surface, but the artists have used this to their advantage by wrapping depictions around protrusions of rock, and it’s here that the decision to film in 3D really pays off: Herzog lets his cameras pan gently across the rock formations and often holds for several seconds on particular images, and the technique really does finally deliver on its promise of putting you in a virtual reality. The director narrates the film in his idiosyncratically dry, yet hypnotic, monotone and uses choral and chamber music to heighten the mood, but never in a crass fashion, and sometimes he just lets the cameras slowly move in silence.
Herzog intercuts the cave sequences with interviews with the scientists working on the site and experts in the field of prehistoric art, and while the use of 3D here becomes distracting and irrelevant these conversations do allow his deadpan sense of humour to assert itself. You get the feeling he’s sometimes chosen his interview subjects for their arresting physical appearance or behavioural tics as much as their knowledge and expertise, and relishes opportunities to play up their personal quirks – he’s delighted when he discovers that one young scientists used to work in a circus, and he’s happy to include a somewhat gratuitous clip of a master perfumer sniffing a rockface in the hope of detecting air currents from an undiscovered cavern. You wouldn’t have got this if the film had been made by the BBC or National Geographic.
We were lucky enough to go to a screening of the film at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge that was followed by a brief Q and A session with Herzog himself, and the great man was on form. He declared himself unconvinced by the value of 3D, at least not until film-makers had worked out how to edit it correctly, and talked about his sadness that the three discovers of the caves had become embroiled in a legal case concerning their claim over intellectual property rights which meant that they didn’t feel able to appear in the film. He also delivered a typically blackly funny anecdote about his archaeologist grandfather’s descent into senility which featured the classic Herzogian phrase “deep in the darkness of insanity”. A true one-off, and long may he continue.