I’ve always viewed the great German director Werner Herzog as rational, utterly unsentimental and thoroughly fatalistic.
His greatest films have been about obsessive characters: Aquirre, Fitzcarraldo, grizzly-loving nature boy Timothy Treadwell - each and every one of them out of their freakin’ megalomaniacal minds.
So it came as a shock when, late in his excellent documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Herzog asks a scientist a question I thought would never pass his lips.
First, a step back. “Cave” is a 3-D documentary (you read that correctly) about France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave where nearly 20 years ago spelunkers discovered a treasure trove of Ice Age art. Rendered 30,000 years ago in charcoal, the animal figures on the cave’s walls are the oldest known paintings.
The cave is off limits to all but researchers, but Herzog was able to wrangle his way in for several short sessions. The result is this film, one of the most strangely moving and intellectually haunting movies you’ll ever encounter.
I’ll admit to practically bawling when I got my first glimpse of this subterranean gallery, especially a trio of Paleolithic horses that look like they might have galloped out of a work by Matisse.
The unknown artists, working over several thousand years, populated the limestone walls with a panorama of animals: bison, big cats, cave bears, mammoths and gigantic stags. The artists display an uncanny knowledge of their subjects, which makes sense, since they were largely in the animal-hunting business.
These ancient humans left behind a few other traces of their time in the cave: The remnants of millennia-old campfires, a child’s footprint and especially the red handprints of an individual with a bent little finger on his right hand.
Herzog’s 3-D camera allows us to see how the artists employed the undulating walls to represent the bulk and musculature of the beasts. It is simply breathtaking.
Herzog narrates the film. Much of what he tells us is fascinating, though verbal hyperbole is never far off. He’s as comfortable spewing precious pontifications as a frat boy is belching.
Then came the question. Interviewing one of the researchers who work daily in the cave, Herzog asks if perhaps these paintings represent the birth of the human soul.
Now that’s a very un-Herzogian query. This filmmaker has never suggested spiritual tendencies, much less an interest in religion (save, perhaps, as a case study in human foible).
So is Herzog toying with us here?
Actually, I don’t think so. Because by the time he pops his unexpected question, we have spent long enough poring over the marvels of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc to know exactly what he’s talking about.
Looking at these sublime images created by our fur-swaddled ancient ancestors, you feel you’re eavesdropping on the beginning of something momentous. Many a modern human finds the sort of inspiration in art that formerly was provided by religion. And this film suggests just how far back in our genetic line this tendency may be traced.
These magnificent drawings somehow connect us to the vast lineage of humanity in a way that feels an awful lot like a religious experience.
I felt it. Apparently Herzog did, too.