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Werner Herzog was a very privileged man indeed to gain access to the Chauvet cave in France's Ardeche region. Lascaux cave, once known as the Sistene Chapel of prehistoric cave painting has now been superceded by Chauvet, which was discovered by three fortunates only in 1994. This remarkable cave was fortunately covered by a landslide thousands of years ago which preserved the cave art, in some cases as if it were only done yesterday. These beautiful paintings give us a real link to our Paleolithic ancestors of 30,000 plus years ago. That is incredibly just how old some of these paintings are. Far older than anything previously discovered. The cave is still scattered with the bones of long extinct species like the cave bear and cave lion. Some of the paintings are breathtakingly beautiful with a fluidity of movement that any great artist would be proud of. Perhaps the centrepiece is a jaw dropping collection of horses one above the other, with two woolly rhinoceros engaged in a fight below them which beggars belief. Some of these ancient artists working with primitive tools created wonderful art. They were the Leonardo's of their distant time! Some ingeniously used the natural contours of the rock to give more realism to their pictures. These people had to literally get inside an animals head to track and kill them successfully, an art that has been lost in modern times with the demise of the last bushmen of the Kalahari and the native aboriginals of Australia. It is only with that knowledge that an individual could create such paintings. The dying bull at the Altamira cave in Spain is perhaps the greatest example of this.
Werner Herzog is able to capture this lost world amongst the shadows of the cave. The three discoverers must have felt like Howard Carter stepping into Tutankhamun's tomb for the first time, such is the magnitude of their find. In truth Herzog has little to do other than film this great art work and tangible link to prehistory with the right equipment and sensitivity to make it a success. The great filmmaker, who is experienced in documentaries succeeds emphatically. If you doubt his documentary film ability then watch his remarkable "Fata Morgana" and the more recent "Encounters at the end of the World". He quite rightly dwells on the paintings themselves, which is as it should be. He then tries to cast light on the nature of the painters, which is so difficult as the time span is so vast. Much is left to calculated guesswork. We watch an elderly scientist trying to recreate hunting techniques in a vineyard, who is quick to admit that he does not have the hunting skills built up over a lifetime that his ancestors would no doubt have acquired. What we do know is that they lived in close harmony with nature as a matter of necessity, and that they also had great artists amongst their number. Their very different world was a much colder place still in the throes of the ice age, but with a much vaster bio-diversity, as this fascinating film informs us. Perhaps Herzog would have been better to have left the strange albino crocodiles out in his closing scenes, but you must judge that for yourselves. Much as I would love to have the opportunity to visit Chauvet, that will thankfully not be possible. The French government, unwilling to repeat the mistakes of Lascaux where access by the public caused damage to a priceless piece of our history, sealed Chauvet off immediately to all but a few dedicated scientists who are still working tirelessly on unravelling the caves secrets. Plans are already afoot to build a replica cave for public access. Not quite like the real thing, but the next best! This is perhaps the finest documentary I can recall watching. My own interest in cave art makes me admittedly biased, but to anyone curious about mans past, or just a damn good documentary then watch this. There is a documentary where Herzog answers questions before a live audience who have just watched his film, that is worth catching in the extras.