I’m going to put myself in what is probably a small minority as someone who is not an unadulterated fan of Werner Herzog’s documentary about the Chauvet Cave in southern France. Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t good or that it’s not worth seeing; it absolutely is, particularly as the only way for the public to view the oldest cave paintings in existence since the cave is not accessible to the public. The cave was rediscovered in the mid-90’s and immediately sealed off from all save a very small group of scientists, archeologists, and paleontologists. Herzog and his 4-person crew, which included himself, were allowed to film for a maximum of 4 hours per day, partly due to the high carbon dioxide content in some of the caves. During the filming, they were not allowed to enter or exit the cave, to prevent additional air influx through the seals that could further degrade the cave’s interior. They were only allowed four cold-panel lights powered through battery belts, and they had to stay on a 2 foot wide metal walkway. The floor of the cave is literally a historical artifact in and of itself, filled with debris, fossils, and footprints, and walking on them would destroy what has been preserved for 32,000 years.
It’s the historical magnitude of that number that makes viewing the film something of a cultural imperative, but also renders it almost pointless. Consider the fact that we are currently in the year 2012, that some of these cave paintings are 32,000 years old, and that some of them were further embellished 5,000 years later, which is still 27,000 years ago and 25,000 B.C. In addition to the cave drawings, there were a pair of carvings found in the cave, as well as some fossilized skulls that are covered in stalagmites, the result of millenia of calcification. At one spot in the cave there’s the footprint of a young boy, and next to it, the footprint of a wolf. There’s no way to tell if these prints were made at the same time, and the wolf was either a companion to the boy or hunting him, or if they were also made millenia apart. But at some point between 25,000 B.C. and 1994, the cave’s entrance collapsed in on itself, preserving everything inside.
The film is at its strongest when it simply shows us the images or gives us necessary details on the fossils and frames things historically. At a certain point, all you can do is visually show this discovery– talking about it doesn’t ultimately add much, and only really undermines the gravity of the miracle of the preservation. But Herzog isn’t content to simply show, and there’s too much talk and historical and philosophical musings that ponder the nature of the universe, but are so open-ended and without data that they dis-empower much of the film. Herzog keeps trying to build the revelation of the cave and its historical impact with interviews and words, while simultaneously pondering the existential meaninglessness of time’s passage and humanity’s journey. But it’s like trying to grasp hold of something immaterial, and the more he scrabbles at it the more pointless the musings seem next to the cave itself. At one point, when the camera crew initially enters the cave, one of the scientists says “No one move. Let’s all be quiet and listen to what the cave has to say.” And after a second or two of noiselessness and water dripping that begins to capture the heightened reality of the cave in all of its naturalism, a score begins to play and ridiculously invades the moment.
The best moments come near the end of the film when, presumably after the historical context-setting of several interviews, the audience now has a wider base of knowledge with which to appreciate the paintings. There’s a good 5-10 minutes where Herzog slowly displays all of the cave’s drawings and some of the cave’s miraculous formations, and that’s really all we need to see. Cave would work as a 20-30 minute documentary short, perhaps much better than this feature. All of Herzog’s efforts to philosophically frame the timeless power and meaning of what we’re seeing work against the film, as such musings themselves are only an inconsequential time-blip of babble captured on a media that likely won’t survive even a fraction of the length the cave’s interior already has.