It’s not a great film. And, despite what the reviewers say, the 3D cinematography doesn’t work – the images lose their sharpness, the focus of the eyes never quite stabilises, and you constantly feel that you are in a cinema struggling to see the screen rather than in a French cave dancing with your paleolithic ancestors. (See my previous rant about 3D cinema and the decline of human civilisation.)
But Werner Herzog’s new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is still a wonderful way of experiencing the Chauvet paintings ‘at first hand’. I think I’ve seen reproductions of them before (although perhaps I’m muddling them up with the images from Lascaux). They are astonishingly beautiful. The YouTube trailer above gives you some good glimpses of the main walls – and without the 3D!
What struck me in the film was their size. They are huge! The fact that there was no space to hide the film crew actually helped, because you kept being reminded of the scale of the paintings – the sound man bobbing in and out of the images with his boom like the stone-age hunters with their spears.
In one sense it’s breathtaking that the images are so old. That’s what makes them interesting - beyond their artistic merit alone. This is just one manifestation of ‘the cognitive leap’, when modern human beings ‘emerged’ (whatever that means) onto the scene, and began to paint, decorate, adorn themselves, make musical instruments, honour their dead, and carve those well-known Venus figurines.
Yet in another sense, why should it astonish us? It seems to be the beginnings of what we would call civilisation, or modern human culture, but as far as we know these Cro-Magnons, these Early Modern Humans, were just like us – the same species, the same human nature. And human beings paint.
So the fact that you walk into a cave hidden for 30,000 years and discover a painting of a horse that looks just like one of Franz Marc’s (one of my favourite painters) shouldn’t surprise us. But it does. And they are astonishing. As is Franz Marc.