29 May 2011

"The Birth of the Human Soul"

At one point in his thrilling, eerie new documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog is interviewing a genial French scientist on a hillside near the caves of the title.  The camera is on the white-haired scientist, a character we have come to respect and enjoy by this point in the film.  We can hear Herzog's gentle German accent asking questions.  

He comes right out with it, out of the blue:  "So, do you think the findings in this cave show the birth of the human soul?"  

It is clear that Herzog does. He uses the phrase several times in his soft-spoken but disarmingly incisive narration, as he does in interviews about the film:  "the birth of the modern human soul."

While quick to caution us on what "soul" might mean, it is clear that to Herzog it is deeply entwined with humanity's deep impulse for making art, which could be said to be the subject of this utterly hypnotic film.  Herzog's camera is an unblinking eye--or really two eyes, since the film is shot in 3D--that gazes endlessly at the prehistoric cave paintings in Chauvet Cave in southern France. We are looking, quite literally, at the world's oldest human art.  Later that eye is turned on some evocative early sculptures, those "Paleolithic Venuses" we might have seen in books as well as renderings of a mammoth and a horse. But Herzog's camera-eye, combined with stark, sculptural lighting and enhanced by the 3-D effect, infuses these objects with a mysterious power.

All this forges for Herzog, and for us (his deeply-felt testament is powerfully convincing) a direct-line connection between the humans who painted mammoths, horses, panthers, and huge-horned rhinoceros ancestors on the walls of Chauvet Cave, and us with our modern forms of representation.  One interviewee brings the circle closed with a telling gesture at the camera, comparing the desire that created the cave paintings with that of the cameraman capturing his image at that moment.

Though Herzog shows us the paintings on the walls of Chauvet Cave almost from the first moment, the film's power builds slowly through a series of interviews with scientists, images of cave exploration, and always those gently-spoken yet  poignant ruminations of Herzog's voice-over.  What starts off feeling like a run-of-the-mill historical documentary slowly takes us to unexpected places.  By the time, well into the film, that Herzog lets sweeping, continuous images of the cave paintings combine in an extended sequence with haunting music that sounds both perfectly modern and utterly ancient, the effect is deeply moving as to be almost unbearable.

It is magnificent, hypnotic, brilliant filmmaking, that makes its point strongly through images and music.  In an interview, Herzog describes the experience of being in this perfectly-preserved time capsule cavern as  "an almost shocking experience."  Herzog's filmmaking is relentless, piling thought on image on music, compounding and re-emphasizing, to where we, too, are shocked by the depth of the experience.

Herzog has said he is "skeptical" about the use of 3-D in films, yet he had no question about using it in this project.  And it works beautifully, serving to immerse the viewer in the experience of the cave, and visually echo the emotional and intellectual depths Herzog unflinchingly takes us to.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a rare treat, taking us to places, both physical and spiritual, that otherwise might have remained closed to us.  Visitors are not regularly allowed in Chauvet Cave.  Herzog and his crew were allowed in on a strict schedule of only 4 hours each day.  They were, perhaps, the last film crew to ever set foot in this deeply important historical wonder.

By seeing this film, we can travel, be awestruck and marvel along with them.


  1. I have Dawn of Art: the Chauvet Cave by Jean-Marie Chauvet and friends on my desk as I write this. It's less "spiritual" than the Herzog movie promises to me, but astonishing nonetheless. Our distant ancestors weren't less human than we are; they just had a lot to learn. If you're looking for a good book, I recommend Barry Cunliffe: Europe between the Oceans. Keep writing; I enjoy reading your essays.

  2. Thanks, Gig and Vivian.

    Vivian: the film, through its exploration of the art of our ancestors, gets deeply into the question of what it is to be human. It gets to these spaces in a physical, palpable, at times painful way, rather than just riding on the surface of a philosophical level.

    It creeps up on you and then hits you over the head. A shocking experience, indeed!