It is that beautiful and moving.
These are the oldest known paintings on Earth, created in charcoal more than 30,000 years ago on the cave's limestone walls.
Discovered in the early ’90s, the cavern’s natural entrance was long ago blocked by a landslide, leaving the treasures inside untouched and hermetically sealed. But these drawings are so fragile that only scientists and scholars are allowed to view them.
Except, that is, for Herzog, who got permission to take small cameras into Chauvet, emerging with a documentary so ravishing and eerily evocative that it’s like discovering the magic of art all over again.
Our Ice Age ancestors decorated the walls with incredible renderings of the animals they depended on. There are lions, huge rhinos, woolly mammoths, stags with immense horns, massive bison, all rendered with an eye for each breed’s characteristics that reveals a lifetime of observation. Three racing horses are uncanny – they look as if they were painted by Matisse.
There are also handprints in red stain. We know they were made by the same person because of his/her broken little finger.
Herzog interviews the scientists. One produces a reproduction of a prehistoric bone flute and notes that it works on the same pentatonic scale used today. He demonstrates by cheekily blowing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But mostly Herzog lets his camera linger on the art. Cave was shot in 3-D and those who saw it in theaters in that format got an extra treat, with the multi-dimensional process magically revealing how countless painters over several thousand years employed undulations in the cave walls to capture their subjects. But even in a flat DVD version, this is intoxicating stuff.
The camera floats across the cavern floor, littered with dozens of skulls of now-extinct cave bears who sometimes violated the manmade art by sharpening their claws on the limestone. A child’s footprint has been preserved. The remains of campfires have sat untouched since a time when glaciers sat a mile deep on the continent.
The experience is transcendent. Herzog may strike some as a pragmatic cynic, but being in the presence of this great art clearly has moved him. Quite uncharacteristically, he wonders aloud if these drawings might not mark the birth of the human soul.
In any case, watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams will do your soul good.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.