It appears that Werner Herzog has produced a once-in-a-lifetime/not-to-be-missed film that, to be fully appreciated, must be experienced in a large movie house. It’s a 3-D documentary titled Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Its subject is Chauvet Cave in France, which Andrew O’Hehir describes at Salon in the following manner:
Something like 20,000 years ago, a rock slide sealed up the entrance to a large cave set into a limestone cliff above the Ardèche River in southern France. As far as scientists can tell, no human being entered it again until 1994, when a trio of explorers wedged themselves through a tiny aperture and made one of the most extraordinary discoveries of cultural history: Chambers upon chambers of spectacular prehistoric art, both figurative and abstract, including images of many extinct species of Ice Age animals. […] What is now known as the Chauvet Cave (after Jean-Marie Chauvet, who led the exploring party) was promptly seized and sealed by the French government shortly after its discovery. More people have visited the summit of Everest since 1994 than have seen the interior of the cave.
And of the film itself, Andrew O’Hehir writes this:
Much of the struggle for Herzog and Nelson was about getting in there in the first place. What can be seen inside Chauvet goes well beyond the 400 or so Paleolithic cave paintings, which remain in nearly pristine condition, and a good deal of important artifacts and fossils (cave-bear skulls! cave-bear scratches!). At least arguably, Chauvet has far-reaching implications for the study of cultural prehistory and the birth of human consciousness. Some of these paintings may go back 33,000 years, which makes them almost twice as old as the art in the better-known Lascaux caves, and roughly 7,000 years older than any other known examples of pictorial art. They open an ambiguous window into an impossibly distant human past and bring us as close as we can come, for now, to the dawn of art.
If you had to nominate one filmmaker to explore this astonishing underground world for posterity, then the legendary cinematic madman and visionary who once ordered a passenger ship pulled over a mountain might well be your choice. Herzog has never been daunted by logistical challenges, and from his early career in Germany through documentaries like “Encounters at the End of the World” and “Grizzly Man,” his work has been infused with what you might call an atheistic spirituality. He’s always fascinated by the kinds of unanswerable questions about human nature and the human soul that Chauvet seems to pose.
The film is playing in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago with the promise of a wider release soon. It sounds irresistable. Living near Los Angeles, I’ll do my best to see it over the next week and share my own encounter with it.