The Review: It would be fair to say that Werner Herzog has always operated a little off the beaten track as far as the mainstream is concerned, although with films including Grizzly Man and his Bad Lieutenant remake in recent years his output is as high a quality now as it’s ever been. True to form, his latest effort is a documentary on a cave system in southern France, discovered less than 20 years ago and home to what are the oldest known cave paintings in the world; not only the oldest, in fact, but pre-dating all other known artworks of a similar nature by the order of millennia.
At face value it sounds fascinating, but the first challenge is how to translate a set of essentially static artworks in a static environment into a living, breathing film. Herzog has made a choice which may not have been available to him even a few years ago, to film in 3D, but this of course presents its own logistical challenges. The fact that Herzog also had barely twenty hours, over the course of a week, due to the need to maintain the delicate climate also added its own layer of challenge, and the director makes a virtue of these obstacles, breaking down the fourth wall and using the challenges to help structure much of the narrative.
More of that structure is given by the context of the images. Using interviews with the scientists who have spent much of the last two decades attempting to unlock the secrets of the cave, the film explores the historical context of the images and tries to understand the mindset of the artists who took to painting the cave. This is also a leaping off point to explore other aspects of the cave, from the fate of its various users and inhabitants (as indicated by their scattered and calcified remains) to the other cultural forces, including music, which were part of the various time periods. This succeeds in painting a rich tapestry, if you’ll pardon the pun, and gives so much more context to the images. Herzog is not averse to a little philosophical musing, either, and the eerie and very vocal soundtrack to much of the film helps to give mood to what could have been a very stilted topic.
Of course, where Werner Herzog is concerned, nothing is as simple as just showing some images and adding some context, so whether it be an “experimental archaeologist” playing a national anthem on an old bone, a man attempting to kill an imaginary horse or a surreal postscript in the shadow of a nearby nuclear reactor, there’s always a bit of oddness around the next corner if things become a little too predictable. But the star of the documentary is undoubtedly the caves, and despite the cramped surroundings and restricted filming techniques, the caves are given enough time to speak for themselves, and never once is any depiction of what’s in the cave anything less than fascinating.
Why see it at the cinema: Herzog makes the most of the open spaces outside as well as inside the cave, giving a real sense of scale and depth, and the gentle humour that Herzog draws out at certain points will work best seen with plenty of company.
Why see it in 3D: By Herzog’s own admission, 3D felt the only way to sensibly convey the textures and the atmosphere of the caves to the viewer. It works spectacularly well, and I’d go as far as to say it’s the best use of the 3D medium I’ve seen yet. James Cameron, eat your heart out.
The Score: 8/10