Director: Werner Herzog
Producers: Erik Nelson. Writer: Werner Herzog. Camera: Peter Zeitlinger. Music: Ernst Reijseger.
Notorious German film-maker Herzog gained exclusive, but limited, access to the Chauvet caves in Southern France, where the earliest known cave paintings in the world made by early man are located. Herzog weaves into the description of how these paintings were made his own musings on the nature of artistic expression and human nature itself and he interviews some of the unconventional scientists, historians and enthusiasts who work to throw some light on this important marker of the ascent of man.
These days Herzog is almost the total auteur film-maker, usually directing, writing, starring (narrating) and even producing his own motion pictures. If he had more hands, he would probably handle the camera on his own and even compose his own music.
This could be for matters of technical feasibility, for Herzog is a powerhouse of film production. With 11 feature length films or documentaries in the past 10 years, plus short subjects of his own or for other projects, it certainly makes it easier to get your films made if you do most of the work yourself. Or it could be that there are fewer people left willing to work with a director famed for his physically demanding shoots (his frequent and equally intense collaborator Klaus Kinski is long since dead).
This project is less gruelling than having native Amazonian Indians hauling a 320 tonne steamship up a mountain (for Fitzcarraldo, 1982), but one still remarks at the achievement of the film-maker under extremely tight filming conditions – Herzog was limited to a total team of three people (including himself), had no longer than one hour to film when inside the cave and had to use special lights that emitted no heat. Herzog’s meticulously clear narration explains why but one senses he might also be enjoying punishing himself, by making a production within the confines of the scientist’s conditions, as well as the location.
It is that otherworldly, alien voice of his that is completely in keeping with the dreamy and slightly odd tone of the film – the barmy but amusing group of professionals who tend to and study the remarkable paintings that adorn the cave help make this come alive more than the actual pre-history art. They sniff out potential new caves that could contain other Palaeolithic treasures and model clothes (apparently the height of fashion 30,000 years ago) whilst playing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ on a recreation flute of the era. Herzog gently needles them during his interviews into revealing their rather strange obsessions.
It is no wonder then that during the more scientific bits the film sags greatly and reveals its great weakness – this is a technical, overlong history lesson, unaccountably filmed in 3-D (but all kudos to Herzog for, amazingly, managing to ride this cinematic wave). Chauvet’s stunning interior may smack Cheddar Gorge into a National Trust corner, but after 30 minutes of amazement, it was clearly time to head back to the café by way of the gift shop.