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In fact, they are the oldest paintings ever discovered. More than twice as old as any other.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
(2010)

Werner Herzog has, of late, lost all his funding. Hence his reinvention as a documentary film maker. Actually, that’s not really true. He’s always mixed fiction and documentaries, but the latter seems to have become predominant over the last two decades (his last feature, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is splendidly lunatic, and well worth seeing).  Cave might not be among his best work, but the subject matter is fascinating enough to hold the attention through a sometimes rambling and over-extended running time.


Herzog is a welcoming narrator, and his disposition to frame his appreciation of a subject in artistic terms is an attractive one. It doesn’t always pay off but, when the material is the oldest known example of art, the reasoning seems perfectly logical. Certainly much more pertinent than a starchy examination of the science of preservation (although this is touched upon).


The Chauvet caves in Southern France were discovered in 1994, having been preserved across the millennia after their entrance was sealed by a rock fall. Public access was promptly prevented by the imposition of a steel door at the new opening, in order to preserve the delicate environment within. As Herzog relates, the paintings are the oldest ever discovered, “more than twice as old as any other”. There were even initial doubts as to their authenticity, because they looked as fresh as if they had recently been painted (abundant stalagmites formed following the first sealing of the caves).


The creatures depicted on the walls include horses, rhinos, bison and lions. And a bear apparently possibly having sex with a woman (dirty bears!) Werner gets quite excited about this, and promptly drops in a Baywatch reference (although made for the History Channel, this isn’t your usual po-faced anthropology and at times it maybe should have been a bit more disciplined). Fascinating information is littered throughout, including the revelation that a span of 5,000 years occurs between some of the paintings and that the cave was not lived in buy humans but used ceremonially.


Herzog is at his best as he warms to a theme on how shadows cast on cave walls were akin to a Stone Age version of cinema. He also embraces the spiritual implications of the site, seizing on how some of the assembled group felt compelled to leave after a few hours there because they felt that there were “eyes upon us”. He identifies the failings of a purely scientific examination of the caves, and is particularly attached to the open-mindedness of a scientist and former circus performer who readily admits that a 21st century take is limited by a lack of understanding of how people then interacted with their world. This includes ideas of fluidity and spirit (“I am not painting, the hand is painting”) and appreciation of time (“We’re locked in history and they are not”).


He’s on less solid ground when he gets distracted by a scientist/amateur musician keen on playing primitive pipes and a perfumer who attempts to sniff out caves; this just seems like filler. And while the news that a replica theme park is planned in the region seems like an inevitable capitalisation of this discovery, Herzog’s attempt to draw a parallel between mutant albino crocodiles living in a nearby hothouse (heated by water from a nuclear power station on the doorstep of the caves) with humans (at least, that’s what I think he was doing) comes across as muddled. It also detracts from the documentary as a whole; he really should have left us thinking about the paintings rather than little Mr. Snappy.


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