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Herzog brings 20,000-year-old art to life

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • 3D film by Werner Herzog brings prehistoric cave art to life
  • Cave paintings of hyena and mammoth up to 32,000 years old
  • First film ever made of the caves
  • Director currently working on Death Row documentary

London, England (CNN) -- Untouched for 20,000 years, the awe-inspiring Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in Southern France is now brought to life in 3D by visionary German director Werner Herzog.

As the camera drops into the cave, to the sounds of eerie chanting, breath-taking scenes of glittering, calcite formations and large halls littered with the bones of now extinct cave bears are not only illuminated but made to seem close enough to touch.

Most important are the numerous paintings on the undulating walls of the cave, of animals including rhinoceros, bison, mammoths, lions, hyenas and horses, some painted up to 32,000 years ago and which are so vivid as to seem alive.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is Herzog's first foray into 3D filmmaking and he says in this case for format was an obvious choice.

"The films I have made so far should not have been made in 3D but I think in this case that it was imperative," he said. "I am still in general skeptical about 3D."

'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'

His approach has allowed the viewer into Chauvet cave, which was only discovered in 1994 and is otherwise shut off to the public for fear of upsetting its delicate climate and damaging the irreplaceable wall paintings.

And for Herzog, the medium also lent itself to the cave's layout: "If you look at the formation of the cave, it's not that there are flat walls and paintings on them; there's a great drama in the formation of wild, undulating walls, and bulges and niches, which were all used and utilized by the artists."

Director of notorious films such as "Fitzcarraldo," "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and more recently "Grizzly Man" and "Encounters at the End of the World," Herzog is used to breaching hallowed and sometimes hostile spaces in his works.

The films I have made so far should not have been made in 3D but I think in this case that it was imperative
--Werner Herzog

"You have to understand why (the French government) is trying to keep people out of this cave, which was preserved like a perfect time capsule when a collapse of this rock face in the gorge of Ardeche more than 20,000 years ago -- just sealed it off completely," he said.

Herzog says he has always had an "independent intellectual fascination" with Paleolithic art. Granted permission to film by the French ministry of culture (he became an employee for the nominal fee of €1), Herzog and his crew of four set off to film in spring 2010.

The crew were only allowed to film in the cave for four hours a day over six days. They had to keep to a metal walkway connecting the subterranean chambers to protect the cave's 30,000-year-old footprints. High carbon dioxide levels in some parts of the cave also restricted shooting.

Inside the cave, negative hand prints of the elusive prehistoric painters dot the walls. The film emphasizes the sophistication of these early artists, detailing their use of shading and perspective in the paintings of the animals as well as their ability to depict expression and movement.

"Somehow art is bursting on the scene 32,000 years ago, completely accomplished, and it never got any better," Herzog said.

Somehow art is bursting on the scene 32,000 years ago, completely accomplished, and it never got any better
--Werner Herzog
  • Werner Herzog
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Herzog suggests an echo of similarity between the drawing of a strange figure composed of a woman and a bison and paintings by Pablo Picasso; elsewhere, multi-phased images of the same rhino prompt the director, who narrates the film in his recognizable Teutonic voice, to say that they have an almost proto-cinematic aspect.

Herzog's cast of characters includes the cave's dedicated archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste, alongside other more colorful interviewees such as an unicyclist-turned-scientist, a caribou-skin-clad "experimental archaeologist" and a perfumer who may recreate the scent of the cave for a proposed replica.

A strange post-script featuring albino crocodiles, living in a glasshouse heated by a nuclear power station close to the cave, turns the film from mildly off-beat documentary to full-blown fantasy.

"That's a moment when the film goes completely wild, into a science fiction fantasy," Herzog said, laughing.

"But the science-fiction fantasy has to do with perception -- with a very basic question," he explained, the question being: How did these people, separated by an abyss of time, perceive the images they made? We can no more answer that question than an albino crocodile, said Herzog.

The prolific director is currently working on a new documentary, about Death Row inmates in Texas and Florida.

"It's just like the cave film -- it's looking into an abyss," he said. "Not just one abyss but wherever you look, there is another abyss. Not uncharacteristically, he said: "It's going to be intense."