Review by © Jane Freebury

It was an inspired decision by French authorities to allow eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog exclusive rights to make a documentary of the underground trove of prehistoric art in Chauvet Cave. The cave paintings, discovered only recently in 1994, have had to be closed to the public so they could be preserved. This doco creates a rare record of late stone-age artwork that was executed with astonishing skill, and Herzog adds a further dimension, in his own inimitable style.

After all, this is the director who brought us Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Rescue Dawn and Grizzly Man, with stories of people who attempt the impossible. During his long and prolific career in feature films and documentaries, he has taken us on many journeys with individuals hell-bent on a private heroic, and even wacky, quest. Clearly there’s something heroic about this time-travel into the past at Chauvet for him too.

The Chauvet chambers are a natural limestone cave system extending 400 metres underground. They were used by people in Upper Palaeolithic times and then became sealed in a rock slide that has kept their contents in pristine condition for millennia. It created a perfect time capsule for the paintings and drawings, considered to be around 32,000 years old, of bears, ibexes, wolves, panthers, rhinos, hyenas, and cave lions and other animals now extinct.

We accompany Herzog and his small team into the same dim and shadowy world that the stone age cavers would have known. Herzog’s imagination takes flight. One of the images is of a bison with 8 legs, and there’s a rhino with multiple horns. Was it an attempt to show movement? Proto cinema?

I wonder whether the undulating limestone walls were like the flanks of animals to those early people. Who was that artist with the distinctive crooked little finger who left his signature all over the place? He (no one wonders whether it was a she) had the sure and confident hand of a Picasso or a Matisse.

Herzog has filmed it all in hand-held 3D. Since seeing Wim Wenders’ Pina in 3D, it seems to me the only way to shoot dance performance now and the technology also seems ideally suited to exploring underground caverns. And, though it seems a bit profane to mention it in such rarefied company, the only good thing about the recent action-adventure caving movie Sanctum, was its 3D.

Herzog seems to wander a bit off-course towards the end, especially where he gets caught up with a master perfumer, the circus juggler turned archaeologist and some albino crocs. But we expect that of him. It wouldn’t be a Herzog film without a few unusual characters and the filmmaker asking some big existential questions.

In a capsule: A trip in 3D down the Chauvet limestone cave system in France which contains prehistoric paintings and drawings of astonishing skill. Werner Herzog guides us in his inimitable style through the oldest art gallery in the world.

4 stars