Werner Herzog is an odd duck (based on the glimpse into his mind that his documentaries have given me). But he is an odd duck that meditates on human stories that seem to matter. And the recent discovery of paleolithic cave art inside Chauvet Cave in France definitely matters.
Granted rare access to this carefully protected site, Herzog gives us a mesmerizing and unsettling glimpse into just how modern we modern humans are. What I mean by that is this: to study the highly stylized and sophisticated cave drawings and paintings by our European forbears (created some thirty to forty-thousand years ago –the oldest found to date) is to come face to face with the reality that they were most definitely us.
Admittedly, I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams with the eye of a professional artist, but there is nothing at all “primitive” about the artwork these anonymous humans left behind. And as the documentary points out, this was all during a time when most of Europe was covered with glaciers, and we were sharing that cold (but sunny and well-stocked) landscape with our distant cousins the Neanderthals.
This is history and science described with a passionate humanity. Herzog is justly fascinated with the art itself, but his real passion is to somehow try to transcend the chasm of time and feel his way into the world that these Cro-magnon artists inhabited. This is the point where science leaves off, and imagination takes hold. This is Herzog’s domain, and he explores it heedless of whether he will sound silly or not (he sometimes does).
But being seen as a bit silly is a very small price to pay for such insight into our shared humanity.