Werner Herzog, director of some of my favorite films, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Nosferatu the Vampyre, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and Where the Green Ants Dream among many others, has made a fascinating documentary, entitled Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Upper Paleolithic cave Chauvet. Chauvet was only discovered in 1994 and is filled with astonishing paintings dating as far back as approximately 34,000 years ago, the oldest yet found in Europe.
Ice Age art is something that has made a deep impact on me ever since many years ago I visited the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain. There, after descending in the elevator shaft to the depth of the cavern, the guide pitched us into darkness so total that it was impossible to see my hand in front of my face. Then the light switch was flicked on, and in a magical theater bison, horses and other animals thundered out of a primal mythscape. I think we can see the matrix of the pagan imagination in such caves.
Herzog received rare permission to film in Chauvet, a place of very limited access, from the French government. The film starts with the crew trekking through a muddy countryside of vineyards and up to the cliff face in a rural part of southern France. The discoverers in 1994 found the cave by perceiving air of a different temperature emitting from a small aperture in the cliff. The main entrance of the cave was blocked off by a rockfall some 20,000 years ago. The film is chockfull of intriguing people including a parfumier who uses his highly refined olfactory sense to literally smell cave air. Once head of the parfumiers’ association, he now searches for new caves. It’s quite likely there remain undiscovered caves in this region.
A metal walkway has been constructed through the cave and archaeologists, scientists, and others visitors can only traverse the cavern upon its raised length and through the fascinating interior of huge stalactites, stalagmites, and bizarre mineral curtains. But the crew with cameras mounted on poles were able to film some generally hidden features, such as the enigmatic bull woman figure, that one of the scholars likens to a Picasso—the bull confronting woman in the labyrinth in the beginnings of the human imagination. Only the lower half of the woman is painted, suggesting to scholars that she is in erotic union with the bull, bringing to mind Pasiphae and the bull who fathered Asterion the Minotaur.
The cave is full of wonders like the group of horses staring down from unimaginable depths of time, expressive and startling in their portrayal as individual horses. There are rhinos in battle, a strange insect like being and other marvels…
The film also registers the passions of the scholars who study this cave; one of the archeologists was in the circus before he became an archeologist. He makes an intriguing observation about what possible mind constructs the artists might have had by doing comparisons with cultures that recently did rock or cave paintings. He mentions an Aboriginal site in Australia where an informant took an archeologist to a sacred rock art site and then set to touching up the artwork, which has probably been renewed periodically over a very long reach of time. When asked about his own role, he said he hadn’t done anything, his gist being that the spirits were re-painting, and he was their vehicle.
We can’t know their stories, but we can see the signs of mythos, of the numinous, of the imagination fully sprung to life in Chauvet, at a time when these Cro-Magnon people shared territory with Neanderthals. In the original cave mouth is a fresco of red dots. There are also many handprints, one of which shows a crooked little finger. The archeologists are excited to be able to detect an individual, and sure enough his work can be detected deeper within the cave.
The light of science, which has computer mapped every centimeter of Chauvet meets the night of myth, of mystery here; something that deeply resounds throughout this magical film. Herzog notes that often after a couple hours of filming, the palpable sense of the ancients became so strong that the crew felt like they were being watched and it would be a relief to emerge from the cave into the light of our world from the dark uncanny mythscape.
This wonderful film makes great viewing during this time of short days and long nights, mesmerizing with its sparks of dreams from the dawn of human culture and myth making.