Top positive review
Recently discovered ancient history, part of the patrimony of France…
on September 20, 2017
…in fact, the cave that is the subject of this excellent documentary by Werner Herzog, contains the oldest cave paintings yet discovered, dating from approximately 32,000 years ago, twice as old as any other cave paintings yet discovered.
The cave which contains the paintings was discovered by three French speleologists on December 18, 1994 in the Ardeche gorge in southern France. The cave is near the famous Pont d’Arc, a natural stone arch that spans the river, which is popular with canoeists and kayakers in the summer. I should know, I’ve been one on several occasions. The cave is named after one of the three speleologists: Jean Marie Chauvet. The cave is in excellent condition since its original entrance had been sealed off by a rock slide approximately 20,000 years ago. It was found by examining the air escaping from vents in the ground. The original access was through a hole that one person could barely squeeze through.
Herzog is again “clicking on all cylinders” with this film. The tonality of his narration exudes “wisdom,” and more importantly, so too does the content. Access to the cave is severely restricted due to the damage that humans can cause, deliberately at times, inadvertently, at other times, simply by their breathing. Herzog is able to obtain permission for his limited crew to film the cave, so that this important patrimony can be appreciated by all of us. The film is in English, and such is the universality of the language, that portions show French and Germans speaking to each other in English. In some cases, the English is dubbed when a French person is speaking.
The paintings are so fresh looking that their authenticity was originally questioned. Microscopic overgrowth that would take thousands of years proved that they were original. The most famous panel contains four horses’ heads. There are also lions, rhinos, and bison. There appears to be a minotaur, the partial body of a female, with the head of a bison. Unlike the paintings in the cave at Lascaux, there is virtually no use of color in the paintings. Herzog notes the efforts to depict the motion of the animals, including 8 legs on a rhino, a type of “protocinema,” as he calls it. Another fascinating aspect of the paintings is that some images overlay others, and via carbon-dating, they appear to have been made 5,000 years apart, longer than the time that separates us from ancient Troy. Archeologists believe that humans never lived in the cave; it was simply visited for ceremonial purposes. And it was much colder back then, with much lower sea levels that made it possible to walk from the sites of present day London to Paris, since there was no channel. “Global warming” must have been an aspiration to the painters in this cave.
Extensive mapping of the cave has been performed, via 127 scanner stations, involving 1800 hours to topography. At Lascaux, an amazingly realistic replica of the cave was built, so humans can tour the “faux” cave, preserving the original. I’ve toured it, and found the movie on how it was constructed to be utterly fascinating. Herzog mentions, in his movie of 2011, that a similar replica would be constructed for the Chauvet cave, and it was opened in 2015. Those many hours of computer mapping of the original had to be essential for the latter project.
The last few minutes of the film are the painted images, without sound or narration, an impressive way of stressing their significance in the silence of the caves. Once again, Herzog has produced a richly informative movie about one intriguing aspect of the world around us. 5-stars.