********CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS********
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 Lascaux cave, once known as the Sistene Chapel of prehistoric cave painting has now been superceded by Chauvet, which was discovered by three fortunates only in 1994.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.
When a group of caving enthusiasts broke through a rockfall into a long-buried complex in 1994, they unexpectedly stumbled on a collection of cave paintings over 30,000 years old which had been preserved against time by their isolation.
The caves remain secret and for the most part sealed; open for only a few days a year to a small number of researchers in order to prevent damage to the paintings, which could be harmed even by a rise in atmospheric CO2 from human breath. However, after years of trying, Werner Herzog was allowed to take a camera crew into the caves for those few days to capture this frankly amazing 3D documentary.
The walls of the caverns are decorated with horses and rhino which look as if they could have been painted last week, and scattered amongst them are smaller, more personal momentoes - someone, tens of thousands of years ago, left his handprint in ochre on the walls throughout the complex, and in the corner of one cave the footprints of a child and a wolf cross the floor together. It's these human reminders in amongst the archeology and geology which Herzog uses to try and cross the vast gulf of time between us and the artists to try to understand who the people were who made the pictures. What did they think or believe the pictures were for? Art alone, or in some way ritualistic? What purpose did the caves serve for these people? Who were they? Were they like us?
The documentary ranges widely through archaeology, prehistorians and geology to try and develop an answer to the questions, but at the end of the day time separates people from each other as much as distance and the people who created the art remain as unknowable to us as if they were on Mars. What we are left with is glimpses of who they might have been and questions as much about who we are, and were we fit into the world, as about them.
Questions you'll find yourself pondering as you watch the silent image of an ancient horse, dancing in the torchlight through an archway of stone.
As much an experience as a film. Remarkable.
on 5 December 2011
I thoroughly enjoyed this film, and you may too, but I find the almost-universal five-star reviews surprising.
Firstly the Good. Herzog is a quizzical, unhurried guide who takes us right into the experience of actually entering and exploring the cave, just as much as he takes us to the stunning cave art itself. There is an attempt to put the art in some sort of context by interviewing experts who have studied the art or who have deeper experience of the prehistory surrounding it. Herzog's interviewing technique (if it can be called such a thing) is wonderfully unexpected. Having taken us deep into the cave and given us a remarkable sense of the physical environment, Herzog goes back to each panel in careful detail. The final section films these anonymous masterpieces in 3D and in shifting light to give an absolutely uncanny sense of being there. As far as the art itself is concerned, it would be impossible to imagine it better filmed. The glacial pace of the story telling is, in this context, really welcome. You have the opportunity to truly experience and absorb the paintings in a manner that we rarely experience on film.
Now for the Bad! I have already mentioned the glacial pace of the film and I would imagine that some viewers will find it unbearably slow. I find the music dismal when it isn't positively irritating and I turned the sound off so that I could actually enjoy looking at the cave art. I also think that there are numerous missed opportunities to place the art in the context of the lives of our ancestors. Admittedly, we are still dependent on a great deal of speculation but, even so, there is so much more that could have been added. I was also baffled as to why the original discoverers were not interviewed. Why were they searching here? What did they expect to find? Surely their personal account of first entering the cave would have been worth having?
As for the Quirky: I'm a fan of many of Herzog's films but the jokey musing on the future judgments to be made by mutant albino crocodiles(!) added nothing to the experience of seeing the rock art.
So, all in all, as a chance to see the oldest prehistoric cave art ever found; this is as close as you and I are going to get (the cave is heavily protected and will never be opened to the public) and the quality of the filming is breathtaking. However, as a chance to truly understand the context and history of our prehistoric culture, this is a sorely missed opportunity. It's well worth seeing if you're at all interested but there's a much more engaging and informative documentary to be made out of this.
on 26 April 2015
Although birds and whales and other creatures sing in their fashion, spoken language is a cultural adaptation of only one animal group on Earth, a hominid called homo sapiens, which is us.
Language is complex, abstract, conceptual and symbolic. Sounds, as we know, are attached to words, which in turn represent meanings. Language arose as a means of communication for survival. It created community, unity, solidarity and protection. It formed invisible bridges between individuals, reducing their sense of isolation and loneliness. Language created what we call society, another word for our need to connect with others.
For 1.5 million years of our existence, the world was devoid of art. We saw beauty in it, surely, and this must have moved us in strange ways. But we didn't understand what the shadows our bodies cast meant. We hadn't learned how to give beauty back to the world. So the world, as yet, had no symbols in it.
But we know now how evolution by natural selection works. Contingencies occur, opportunities arise. A momentous shift occurred in the human mind somewhere between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. Consciousness poised or primed the human mind for symbolic thought and conceptualization. When the breakthrough came art came into the world. Objects were no longer objects only. They became totems. They had meaning and magical powers. Among the first totems were the animals on whose existence we depended. Even if they frightened and threatened us, we revered them, as we came to realize we would die without them. Thus death and the future were also born. We crossed a conceptual bridge. We became existential beings. We created gods and religions to console and distract us, to take our minds off our end-fate — extinction.
The great French palaeontologist Jean Clottes speaks in this film. He says Palaeolithic man saw the world in two related ways. The world was both fluid and permeable.
Fluidity meant transformation between separate objects in the world was possible. Thus the head of a lion on the body of a man carved from the ivory of a mammoth tusk was not strange; it was normal, wholly plausible and acceptable.
Permeability meant no divisions existed between living things. The great unity was the spirit world where all things mixed, where everything interacted as one. Whatever man was he was not separate from the plants and animals that surrounded him, nor from the rivers, forests, sky, sun, moon, wind, stars and rain. He shared the world with cave bears, bison, elk, ibex, horses, lions, leopards, wolves, foxes, eagles, hawks, woolly rhinos and mammoths. He lived on the edge of ice surrounded by snow and glaciers. The skins, fur and feathers of the animals he ate also created his clothing, mittens and boots. Their bones gave him needles and fish hooks, and would one day give him music in the form of bone flutes.
Chauvet Cave was discovered by three amateur speleologists in December 1994. At the ground surface they detected subtle draughts issuing from the outcrop of a cliff. They realized a cave existed behind the rock wall. They removed rocks from the spot and found a narrow opening. The original cave entrance, we would later learn, had been buried under debris from a rock slide that happened thousands of years ago. This slide sealed the cave, making it in effect a time capsule. With the aid of a rope ladder the three spelunkers climbed down into the main galleries of the cave. Then with their head lamps and torches they stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries in the history of human culture. On the walls of the cave they saw a zoological panorama of wild horses, ibex, bison, elk, woolly rhinos and other animals. They had travelled 32,000 years back in time.
The cave is located in the Ardeche Valley of southeastern France near the village of Pont-St.-Esprit. A natural limestone bridge called Combe d'Arc arcs over the River Ardeche near the site. The cave is sealed off to the public, locked behind a thick bank-vault metal door. Only a handful of scientists (archaeologists, palaeontolgists, geologists, et al.) have limited access to it. They have now mapped every square centimeter of the cave (1,300 feet in length) using laser technology. With this data a new replica of Chauvet will be built nearby for the public, as has been done with Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne region of central France.
Eccentric, charismatic, ambitious and half-mad, Werner Herzog wheedled his way into the French Ministry of Culture to gain access to a minister of culture there (who knew him by reputation and admired his films). This civil servant gave Herzog and three other members of his camera crew limited access to photograph inside the cave. Was he the man for the job? You can decide. What he brings is astonishment, awe and artistic imagination. The surfaces of the rock walls are uneven, which the Palaeolithic artists exploited to heighten the 3D effect of the animals. The camera promotes this illusion too. The images move in shadows as the torchlight dances over them. Herzog frames the views musically as well. He fills the soundtrack with choral singers, ghostly ancestral voices that reach us from the rock. Cello and piano notes also haunt the cave. The effect is spooky, as intended. Indeed, as even Jean-Marie Chauvet, the main discoverer of the cave, writes:
“Alone in that vastness, lit by the feeble beam of our lamps, we were seized by a strange feeling...We felt like intruders...We were weighed down by the feeling that we were not alone; the artists' souls and spirits surrounded us.”
The haunting will continue. We will always wonder what the art signifies. The conceptual world of our ancestors is not ours, so it is our mystery now. But that's all right. Gauguin used to say that we don't paint what we see in the world. We paint what we feel by seeing. It was the same for them. These vivid animals were not painted for someone's amusement. They were deliberately painted in the darkest, most inaccessible parts of the cave. Why? Because to see them wasn't easy. It meant confronting the darkness and going forward into it. In other words, it meant courage and pilgrimage, which indicates faith.
In one section of the cave a stone plinth rises from cave floor. It seems to have been purposely positioned there. The skull of a cave bear, a species now long extinct, rests on top of the plinth. The snout of the bear points toward the former cave entrance, now sealed up. The skull has rested there for over 30,000 years.
Astronomers say the carbon atoms in our bodies and brains were incubated in stars billions of years ago. Think of that, if you will, and of that cave bear skull in Chauvet, the next time you look up at the night sky in wonder, fascination and gratitude. It is all so improbable that you are here.
If you like going to art galleries, this is perhaps the ultimate one: a cave discovered only 20 years ago, sealed by rockfall aeons before, thus becoming a time capsule - perfectly preserving the paintings and bones within in the process.
The drawings on the walls of these caves aren't the primitive stick-creatures I was expecting, but portraits of recogniseable animals - horses, lions, rhinos - done with beautiful use of shading and perspective. Some of them, incredibly, are over 35,000 years old.
If that's not enough to give you brainache, then consider that some of the paintings were done 5,000 years later, and that they cannot be fakes because some of them have been partly-obscured by calciate rock-formations caused by millenia of water drips.
The cave itself is extraordinary, and the camera lingers owderingly over every detail - there are huge glittering curtains of crystal and calcium growths, skulls embedded in stalagmites - even without the mind-blowing paintings it is wonderful.
If you like archaeology, caving, art or ancient history this is a MUST. If you don't like to concentrate for too long, you'll get rapidly fed-up with this.
The implications of these paintings are almost too much for me to get my head around. This film is unique. It's a slight departure for Werner from his recent documentaries, which have all had people at the center of them - something which detracts very slightly from the accessibility of it. Still, it is remarkable stuff.
on 8 February 2015
- There are two subtitles options: Italian and none.
- There are two sound options: original track and Italian track. In Italian, everything is voiced in... Italian. When Italian actor is narrating, you cannot hear Herzog's original in the background. However, I do not understand Italian, so that's all I can say.
- The important bit is that the original track is half English - half French. Herzog himself narrates in English. Majority of the people he talks to also speak in English. However, there are at least five scientists who put up lengthy monologues in French (even though I suspect they all know English... never mind ;)). I couldn't understand a word, so had to give the disc 4/5. If the film (or at least this edition of it) is in English, which it clearly is, then why not put up English subtitles when somebody speaks in other languages?
Anyways, the film hardly loses much even if you don't know French. Or Italian. It would be even better if not for the "we are not allowed to make a few steps off the metal path, or the sky will collapse and the world as we know it will end" (you'll get it) nonsense. I mean, come on! What is wrong with you, people, let the guy shoot the paintings!!! ;)
Sorry for the above, couldn't help it.
Additional material is a mixed bag. However, the interview with Herzog in front of an audience (in English) is quite good.
The quality of the picture was very good (watched in 3D).
This is an unusual film, a documentary about filming a documentary, almost. It reveres and explores a unique collection of almost impossibly beautiful cave paintings which were found in France 15 years ago. These paintings are over 30,000 years old and were hidden by rockfalls for tens of thousands of years. So they feature stunning artwork of extinct animals, drawn by our ancestors during an ice age, and they are wondrously well preserved.
The cave system is a huge one - which isn't always obvious because the film-makers are very restricted in where they can go and how much light they can use. Only an occasional shot reveals how big the caves are, and the splendour of the calcite stalactites and stalagmites. The floor of the caves are scattered with charcoal, animal bones and human footprints - all of them dating from 30,000 years ago. It's astonishing and the film is very successful at capturing and exploring this remarkable cultural treasure trove.
However, I felt that it was a little less useful when it came to explaining the cave art and the lifestyle of the humans who lived all those centuries ago. So much of this is hypothetical and involves experimental archaeology. The segments where earnest scientists explained (in their second or third languages) their pet theories or demonstrated how stone age technology might have worked were not as compelling as the filming in the cave itself. The scene where a reconstructed flute is used to play the Star Spangled Banner is... pointless, if mildly entertaining.
In many ways this might have been better as an hour-long film which concentrated more on the images of the animals. We see one particular panel in some depth - and it is stunning, showing wild horses in mid-gallop, surrounded by other animals from the plains - but other interesting scenes weren't given so much coverage. The drawing of two cave-lions, stalking side by side is extremely powerful, but we only see it once when it's used to explain that we now know whether this extinct animal had a mane or not...
The soundtrack is also astonishing. It gets almost painfully discordant at times, underlining the power of the animals, the unknown intentions of the artist and the disjunct between `us' (modern man) and `them' (the society of the cave painters).
Recommended for art fans and those who enjoy ancient history or quirky factual films in general. Avoid this if you prefer conclusive evidence and a coherent narrative.
Werner Herzog has always been a magician. A director fascinated by
obsession; by the fantastical; by the small details which identify us
as human in our many and various guises. A film-maker of true vision.
This superlative documentary takes its place among the very best examples
of his work. It is a journey into the distant past brought to vivid life
by the extraordinary restraint of the production and Herr Herzog's quietly
spoken narrative. The Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche Gorge in Southern France
is a remarkable phenomenon. The rugged limestone edifice hides one of the
earth's greatest treasures at its heart : the oldest paintings ever made
by human hands. These 32.000 thousand year-old images have been preserved
in all their animistic glory in the cave's cold, dark, undisturbed interior.
Discovered in 1994, the cave is largely closed to prying eyes, other than a
few privileged scientists, to maintain the unique atmosphere and to stop them
dissolving into the ether. To see them here is a rare and wonderful experience.
Herr Herzog is a gentle, naturally inquisitive and humane guide. His sense
of wonder is almost childlike in its wise intensity. The small team he was
allowed to take into the cave with him capture the enchantment with the
bare minimum of filming equipment; even the hand held lights are battery-
powered but these technological limitations become the film's greatest
strength. The images of animals : horses, rhinos, bears and other creatures
become ever-more alive in the shifting swathes of illumination and shadow.
The quality of the drawings is extraordinary given their great age. The
detail and three-dimensionality of their execution takes one's breath away!
Interviews with the committed archaeologists and paleontologists involved in
the project are both informative and inspiring and the director's light touch
is as much absorbed in the details of their individual lives as their emotional
responses to the paintings (one young man, in particular, charmingly reveals
his former existence as a circus performer, much to Herr Herzog's delight!)
The musical soundtrack, as ever in a film by this great artist, is beautifully apt.
The feelings engendered by the film are curiously humbling as we find
ourselves absorbed by this mesmerising story of our early ancestors.
This wonderful piece of work will be enjoyed by viewers of any age.
I cannot recommend it highly enough.
This is the most important 3D film that I own. Viewed on 100’ projection screen it takes me into a cave with drawings on the walls. 36000 years ago.
I have the 2011 dvd which plays quite well especially for the inside the cave scenes. It is, however, the first upgrade that requires me to keep the original dvd next to this new blu ray/3D version.
Supplied by Den’s DVD it is the Spanish edition. There is English or Spanish audio options and Spanish subtitles which you can only cancel if you choose the Spanish audio. The three interviews undertaken entirely in French have no English subtitles or voice-over. My original dvd does have English voice-over here. There are no Extras on the Catalan version which has a slim blu ray case. Total cost £10.26 including first class postage arriving next day.
The 3D technology excels itself for this documentary film. Rocks or stalactites hanging from ceilings really do come into your living space. The scene outside with a spear throwing tutorial nearly had my eye out!
Personally I enjoyed the director’s narration. His talk of ‘inner landscapes’ is a broad and deep perspective beside the science of it all; for example you could walk from Paris to London when these drawings were made. In the end he links our view of the images to an albino crocodile viewing them. That is how much ‘we’ know.
What strikes me hard is that intelligence has remained the same. What we are we once were. You can read the cave as mutual respect between all the animals or as brutal human slaughter of more than what he needs: I lean toward the former. Spirituality might just be a wrong turn here. Physical reality ruled, sharing an individual’s expression. The language of Man.
on 19 May 2014
Be warned, the voice over may be in English and the subtitles in Italian. But there's several lengthy interviews in French.