His latest, ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’, also presents a gulf that cannot be crossed, though this one is perhaps more tantalising as it separates us not from an ineffable other but from our own past. The beauty of the cave paintings at Chauvet in the south of France is more or less impossible to get your head around. Painted over a 10,000-year period starting 35,000 years ago, they are older than some geological formations around them, yet possess an immediacy and sophistication that feels fresh and vivid. In many ways, the minds that made them must be like our own, yet we cannot hope to access the world they represent.
The images are fragile and the caves hazardous. The French government granted Herzog and a skeleton crew a few short days’ access, during which they shot in 3D. The reasons for this choice are clear: generally, stereoscopic shooting is well-suited to express the physicality of confined spaces; specifically, and crucially, these paintings use the topography of the cave walls in expressive, almost sculptural harmony with their subjects. The lines used to make a horse, bear or panther are quite beautiful in themselves but their interaction with the three-dimensional surfaces on which they appear – the way a cove hides anxious prey or a bulging wall becomes a puffed-out chest – is crucial to conveying their power. The film finds other uses for the technology too, from a startling CG wire-frame model of the cave complex to heaving close-ups of ancient figurines; from the flight of a remote-controlled plane to a spear lobbed at the camera in a paleontologically correct nod at vintage 3D sensationalism.
Herzog stamps his presence on the film through his now familiar style of narration, a mixture of awe and scepticism, humility and wit. His own questing sensibility becomes all the more pivotal given the lack – unusual for a Herzog picture – of an identifiable obsessive-hubristic protagonist. He does, however, exercise his skill in finding delightfully peculiar interview subjects – in this case researchers ranging from a perfumier who brings his expert nose to bear on the caves’ history to an experimental archaeologist dressed in reindeer fur who demonstrates a prehistoric flute.
But such contextual material can only dimly, flickeringly illuminate the lost world of these remarkable images. In the caves, Herzog notes, ‘Time and space lose their meaning.’ Inevitably bound by both, his film is as close to their beauty as we will ever get.