The only way I would ever learn about Palaeolithic cave art would be through a film narrated by Werner Herzog. The subject isn’t necessarily my cup of tea but through the beauty of the images and Herzog’s narration it became an absorbing journey exploring the concept of time, reality and perception. And the 3D is awesome.
The Chauvet cave in southern France was accidentally discovered by three cavers in 1994. It contains the oldest known and best preserved Palaeolithic cave paintings which are at least 32,000 years old. Called the most important discovery in human culture, the French government has closed off the cave to prevent damage. Only two tours are taken a year. Spring 2010, Herzog and a film crew went into the cave to film these paintings with a group of art historians, archaeologists and palaeontologists.
If you watched the UK premiere you could witness a live Q&A with Herzog himself. He explained that the French minister of culture was a fan and accepted Herzog’s offer of working for the Ministry of Culture for 1 euro whilst he filmed the cave. That explains how he got into a site, what he and his crew bring back is an extraordinary and important document of human history.
The cave paintings are astonishing. Deer, buffalo, panels of horses and animals that are now extinct – cave lions, cave bears, woolly rhino. These images look so fresh and distinctive, many created by simple strokes, but they illustrate the creatures of the Palaeolithic world. To quote Herzog, it is like the frozen flesh of a moment in time.
The best way to convey information is through imagery yet how a culture perceives is a question which Herzog explores and where the 3D is incredible.
The sense of depth is fantastic. It is good at illustrating Herzog’s point of how the cave paintings are a form of proto-cinema, how the contours of the walls add a sensorial dynamic and how angling light gives the images a sense of movement.
The atmosphere in the cave is spooky enough with its calcified atmosphere and luminous stalagmites but as the cavers negotiate narrow metal walkways that protect the cave they encounter piles of discarded bones and various paintings on walls that seem so fresh.
To break up time caving and reinforce the importance of the images, Herzog interviews experts who explain through science and philosophy the paintings and demonstrate some of the Palaeolithic tools leading to some comedy.
Whilst I am ambivalent about 3D as a whole, Herzog’s choice to film in 3D was a brilliant one as it conveys the texture of the paintings and the atmosphere. Who would have thought cave paintings would be more compelling than that sci-fi flick, Avatar?
A final mention goes to the soundtrack which veers from the near silence of the cave (spooky!) to sacred music – choral chanting balanced between timelessness and dirge.
This is an artistically important film and one of the best to use 3D I have seen.