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In a cave with Werner Herzog

For filmmaker Herzog, the ancient paintings in 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' speak to the human soul.

April 28, 2011|By Allan M. Jalon, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Filmmaker Werner Herzog's new documenary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," features the Chauvet cave in France.
Filmmaker Werner Herzog's new documenary, "Cave of Forgotten… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — — During two brief periods a year, a few select paleontologists, geologists and other specialists receive special permission from the French government to pass through a vault-like door on a cliff above the Ardeche River in southwestern France. Once inside the Chauvet cave, they become members of an exclusive group — those who have witnessed, in three dimensions, the oldest known art in the world.

Discovered in 1994, the 32,000-year-old cave paintings show bears, bison, tigers and horses ranging with life-like movement over wavy limestone walls. To preserve the images, France has strictly limited entry to the cavern. But among those granted access last spring was filmmaker Werner Herzog, who took in a 3-D camera and brought out a 90-minute film that gives viewers entrée to a spectacular place to which they would otherwise never be admitted.

"There were more people in that screening room just now than have ever been in the Chauvet cave," said Zach Zorich, a senior editor at Archaeology magazine, gesturing toward 100 working and armchair archaeologists emerging from an advance showing of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" at a theater beneath a hip SoHo hotel earlier this month.

Though a few specialists in attendance objected to Herzog's treatment of scientific fine points, a number called the film, opening Friday in Los Angeles, a landmark in the popularization of archaeology — "the antithesis of Indiana Jones," said one.

But as Herzog told a leading prehistorian who pointedly challenged him during a Q&A after the SoHo screening, he didn't really make a film about archaeology. Or about art, either. The roots of humanness itself, Herzog said in an interview, are what he found in the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave, as it's officially named.

"In making this film," he said, in the semi-formal, German-accented English well-known from his films, "I found a world that is like a far-distant echo of the origins of the modern human soul, the same way cosmologists found a background radiation all-pervading the universe as the last remaining echo of the big bang. Maybe this is the first time humans give evidence of themselves in the future."

The result is pure Herzog oratorical, punctuated by spiky humor, ending with a riff of surreal visual philosophizing about the limits of perception. To call it a film about a cave is like saying his documentary "Grizzly Man" was about bears. But the lyrical yet studied script makes it clear that Herzog, who has been fascinated by Paleolithic cave paintings since childhood, felt a deep responsibility to a cultural patrimony whose value transcends borders.

"I knew I had a task beyond this film, and that is to leave something for the memory of the human race," he said. "It sounds pretentious, but we know the cave will never be open for the general public. We know this is the only real film document of the cave, and that is one reason it was done in 3-D."

Herzog talks often these days about how, at 12, he was entranced by a book about the caves at Lascaux, another French site not far from the one in his film, whose roughly 17,000-year-old images seemed phenomenally old until the discovery of Chauvet. He saved money working as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy it. Later, he was dismayed upon hearing that carbon dioxide exhaled by thousands of visitors had degraded the Lascaux pictures. That history, and having visited remote digs with his archaeologist grandfather, led him to feel that making the film "was destiny."

He finds alter egos in the artists whose ghosts he touches with his cameras, calling their paintings "proto-filmmaking." He wonders about them — "Who were these people?" — as if they were distant family. But he didn't seem pleased in SoHo when Randall White, a prominent Paleolithic art expert from New York University, chided him for leaving too much to wonder, not giving the cave-painters their recognized anthropological identity.

"I was surprised to not see the word Aurignacian in the film," White stated sternly, adding that their culture is known by that name as fully as the Etruscans are by theirs. Herzog, uncharacteristically flustered, answered that too much scientific detail would "chase away our audience," He said he wanted to make a film both informed and accessible. That goal, he told the group, also guided the music developed for the film by his old collaborator Ernst Reijseger, which echoes discoveries of prehistoric flutes made from bird bones in other European caves.

Herzog turned professionals working at Chauvet into members of his cast, playfully coaxing them away from their roles in the institution the cave project has become. Yet Zorich and others say that the film builds carefully on the work of scientists who have been part of the cave story since the day — Dec. 18, 1994 — three climber-researchers led by Jean-Marie Chauvet detected a telltale wisp of air from a crack in a cliff.

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