In the shadows of the past
(Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Werner Herzog; Canada / USA / France / Germany / UK; 2010; 90 mins)
Mark Twain once speculated that “if the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age.” It’s one of those images that helps us miniaturise – and therefore fathom – the unfathomable abyss of time that dwarfs us. Somewhere, deep inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France, Werner Herzog’s sonorous tones bring us to the precipice. He shows us just how thick that lick of paint really is.
He shows us cave drawings so vivid and accessible that I’m ashamed to have thought my ancestors of 30,000 years ago any less imaginatively or physically sophisticated than my own model of human. Their art is motional, sinewy and seems to have a strange velocity as it juts out of the rock-face. Suffice to say, it needs to be seen – if it could be expressed in words then the artists would have done so, and this film would not need to exist.
Clearly attracted by what was already a cavernous cathedral of nature – complete with crystals and stalagmites – these pre-historic people came to indulge in a carnival of expression. In the same vein, Herzog’s film is a celebration of this human creativity and of its posterior scientific study, of art and science and their eternal embrace sealed beneath. The accompanying quirks of human existence are also humorously venerated: the wacky enthusiasts and scientists who dress as their forefathers or try to throw spears like them. It may be a little weird and we don’t get it, but that’s precisely the point. Humans have always communicated themselves in variously abstract ways. So this film is also a celebration of mysteries of expression, and our inevitable ignorance. How many more unknown ice-age galleries are there beneath our feet? It is part of the thrill and the fear, looking over the abyss, staring down the Eiffel tower.
The idea that these painters were also faced with this truth of transience – accentuated by the fact that some of the art had been embellished by younger pre-historic artists, 5000 years after its original composition – is perhaps the most daunting thought. These people too grappled with the sheer size of time, but in a far different manner. As Herzog observes, they hadn’t the chart of history with which to measure themselves. So their response is to depict concentric images of motion, continuity and life in the form of the animal kingdom (rhinos, lions, horses) on the immovable walls of the cave. From their brushes came posterity, perhaps not as they had intended, but theirs was an investment in something larger than themselves: nature and the glories of creation. Far from being ham-fisted apes, this culture had taken strength from shunning anthropocentrism – the belief that the world revolves around the homo sapiens – a good 30,000 years before the Victorians came to crisis at the very thought.
For this reason, watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams is very much a life affirming experience. It is the epitome of transcendent cinema, as Werner Herzog shines his torch on this monument to life and, like a dog chasing its own tail, our humorous habit of pursuing its meaning. If by the end of this film some of its images haven’t set your heart apace or raised some profoundly fundamental questions for you, then you have been legally dead for ninety minutes. Within its cave we hear the echoes of a hymn to humanity, and its elegy. It is a genealogy of art, from flame-flickering wall pictures to film itself. And it is a history of us; as Herzog comments, “we can hear our own hearts beat.”