This is a 2010 documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet Cave in France that was mentioned in a Grayson Perry book I am reading. In the cave are paintings that are at least 30,000 years old and due to a landslide that sealed the cave off thousands of years ago, they remain in almost pristine condition, as though they were in a time capsule. The cave is heavily protected with very few visitors being allowed to enter in a bid to preserve the paintings and evidence around them.
The paintings themselves are incredible and this documentary is one of the best looks we’ll ever get to see of them. Many of them feature animals that would have been native to France at that time. There are horses, mammoths, lions, rhinos, deers and only one part drawing of a human female.
There are a few panels of handprints made from red ochre that are thought to have been by one man. In the documentary, they show how they identified it as one male artist who was probably about 6 feet tall and even concluded the order in which he made the prints.
The art of the animals is amazing. There is a sense of movement about them and layers of animals that have been painted on with the 3D surface of the cave taken into consideration. The combination of the surface contours and the way that the light would change in the cave with torchlight almost gives them an animated feel as though they move across the cave.
The Documentary Style
As well as the fascinating subject, Herzog’s film itself is a piece of art. He gives us an insight into a place most of us will never get to visit. However, it isn’t just a documentary about art. Herzog makes us think about huge topics, humanity itself, about the nature of time, God, religion, conservation, materialism and so many other contemplative questions throughout. The cinematography is beautiful. even considering they had to film in a cramped cave with limited access walkways. The music chosen to accompany each section gives it a religious experience feel about it and he does his best to make the place feel as alive as if you were in the cave with him.
One of the big questions asked is if we can ever tell and understand who these people were who painted the images in the cave. We think we can relate to them purely as they are humans like us, but in doing so, we take so many of our modern western perspectives with us. Can we ever understand the artists as people across such an abyss of time? It makes us question what is important to us and how that might be regarded 30,000 years from now. The objects we treasure and the art we make, will that be understood so far into the future? Or will it be misinterpreted? Will anyone even care so far in the future?
There is argument through the movie that it is spirituality that connects us all across epochs. Herzog argues that instead of being homo sapiens, we should be homo spiritualis. There is some evidence the people in the cave made the paintings in a spiritual way. There is a very specifically placed skull with what seems to be incense around it that indicates the cave was used a spiritual place. We assume as modern westerners at times that art is purely decorative or expressive but there is a very interesting point in the film that if you talk to people like indigineous peoples about why they make art, they will reply they are not making art, it is the spirits that are making art. So, could it be a link to spirituality that links humans of all types, all ages and all eras that is the link in art across time.