Being a documentary about the Chauvet Cave of in the Ardèche valley, and its haunting prehistoric pictures of animals – aurochs, rhinos, reindeer, lions and horses. The caves were sealed off by a rock-slide 20,000 years ago and so remained unspoilt and unknown until discovered by cavers in 1994 and Herzog was given limited and very precious access to film the rock paintings that most people will never see (the moisture caused by breathing can destroy the paintings), although a recreation of them is proposed as a theme park nearby.
Some of the pictures, dating back to 35,000 years at a time when early humans shared Europe with Neanderthals and ice-sheets covered much of the Earth, have a sense of movement and grace about them that are reminiscent of Picasso and the lions are far more impressively realistic than any I’ve seen in early mediaeval art (more familiarity with the subject, of course). There is one section with four horse heads, to which the camera keeps returning, that could either be representing a herd or else the movement of a single animal, and which is particularly special. This had a cinema release in 3D though, as we were watching on DVD, I can’t judge how reliant the movie is on that effect.
This is by no means a perfect film. Herzog, faced with a limited amount of (admittedly amazing) footage of the caves, pads it out with some talking heads, some of whom are more interesting and reliable than others. There is an “experimental archaeologist” who wears seal furs and goes by the rather marvellous name “Wulf”, a master-perfumier who might be employed by the theme park to reproduce the smells, not of the caves as they were discovered, but as they are imagined they might have been if the various animals depicted on the walls were present though, apart from humans, only cave bears were ever resident in them. Even one of the archaeologists goes a bit loopy, suggesting that the pictures can be “heard” as well as seen.
There is an attempt to put the cave into a wider European perspective with comparisons to other ‘artworks’ from the period but this is all rather perfunctory and half-hearted. Herzog seems to want to tell a story about what it means to be human and push the idea that it is not just our ability to communicate through language but to also to record and transmit ideas across time but, when his material is too thin to support his thesis, just retreats to vague talk of “spiritual” and similar guff.
Finally, there is a barking-mad postscript featuring a section, for no apparent reason and now known to be totally faked, about “nuclear mutant albino crocodile doppelgangers”. I cannot think of anything this adds to the film except a talking point. It is nonsensical and stupid and it diminishes the whole.