When you think of Werner Herzog – if you think of Werner Herzog at all – you don’t usually think of a film-maker that would hit you with the latest fad in cinema-technique, namely 3D technology. You were wrong.
The latest documentary by Werner Herzog focuses on the Chauvet-Cave in southern France. The movie is remarkable because of two reasons. The first is technical in nature: There are no visitors allowed into the cave (except for the scientists working there) and no one is allowed to film there or take pictures (except for the – you guessed it right – scientists). Thus, watching the movie, you will get a glimpse on something you would normally never have the chance to see. And to even take this privilege a little further, the interior of the Chauvet-cave is brought to you in 3D. Which leads us to the second aspect of how remarkable this movie is.
This second aspect is one of content: The interior of the Chauvet-cave is covered in rock-paintings, which are beautiful. They are diverse and there is a variety of styles to be found, but they are all fascinating in their own way and some of them are astonishing in their understanding of perspective, in their attention to detail and in their use of the background, the walls of rock in the cave, which can only be seen and fully understood when experienced in 3D.
But most of all this aspect is a lesson in significance: The rock-paintings in the Chauvet-cave date back 30 000 years. Thirty thousand years. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Furthermore, research has shown that huge timespans have elapsed between individual paintings. Some of them were painted in the cave 10 000 years apart. Yes, ten thousand.
These numbers make it all the more fascinating to witness the rock-paintings in 3D. You cannot only admire their beauty – you can also be profoundly awed by the display of artistic and technical skill at a time that I didn’t even know sapient human beings really were around. I guess theoretically I knew and know, but to be honest, thirty thousand years ago is so far off my historical radar that I have trouble getting my head around the fact that this was a time when actual people led actual lives and left actual artistic expressions of their worldview – and these still exist, this day and age, for us to see and wonder.
Thirty thousand years ago – who were these people? What did they expect from life, what was their outlook on it? How did they interact, how did they get by, what did they do for fun? Thinking and talking abut pre-historic people so far has meant to me to think and talk about quasi-people. I have no trouble acknowledging ancient Egyptians as human beings just like me, but I have trouble (and it was probably due time to reconsider this) acknowledging people hunting mammoths, extinct for thousands of years, as human beings just like me.
I have seen rock-paintings before. But the ones presented in this movie, the ones to be actually found in the Chauvet-cave, they come in such detail, with such skill and with such beauty that all of sudden it is impossible to think of their creators, who lived thirty-fucking-thousand years ago, as anything else than equals to me and you. And therein lies the lesson in significance. How far have we really come as a society? As human beings? How much do we actually know about those who have come before us, how much have we forgotten, how many times have we repeated their mistakes and brought about the same successes? And what will remain of us 30 000 years into the future? What will remain of me?
The Chauvet-cave does not confront us with individual histories (well, hardly: there are hand-prints all over the cave made and left by one identifiable individual). What does it mean to think of our, we the people who live right now and define this time as present, future as an enclosed cave that contains our various societal ideas, ideals and norms in the form of a few reduced pictorial testimonials? Where am I in this? And can I even get my head around that?