This documentary is vintage Werner Herzog, the director and co-writer.  Using 3D most effectively, he takes the viewer on a tour inside Chauvet Cave in southern France.  Here, we can see incredible drawings that were accidentally preserved when there was a huge rock slide that completely sealed up the cave until it was discovered in 1994.  Not only are the paintings incredible to look at, there are also sculptural stalactites and stalagmites covered in sparkling calcite and animal skulls and bones littering the floor of the cave.  The paintings, dating back some 32,000 years ago, are primarily of animals, and there is a partial rendering of the female body similar to Paleolithic carvings of Venus.   

The small party allowed to accompany Herzog into the cave includes archeological experts who provide interesting scientific information about the cave, and speculations about the people who lived there and produced the art.  During filming, they could only be in the cave for four hours per day over a week’s time because of restrictions placed on visitors to preserve the site.  Only scientists with special permission are permitted in the cave; it is not for tourists.  Despite years of research, no one knows the actual purpose of the paintings—whether for religious or ceremonial purposes, or for some other reason.  Herzog puts the cave in context by showing scenes of the area surrounding the cave, including a vineyard with a local man demonstrating a Paleolithic tool used to kill animals.  

Typical of Herzog’s documentaries, the soundtrack composed for the movie is modern, with screeching violins and dissonant chords, although there are some vocal segments that are quite beautiful.  Since I don’t have much of an appreciation for this type of music, it was difficult to endure during the course of the whole movie.

After an initial tour, with experts explaining what we are looking at, before ending the film, Herzog takes us back through the cave with little dialog so we can ponder the paintings more closely and get a sense of what it is like to actually be inside.  3D was especially effective in showing how the artists used the curvature of the rock to enhance their work and convey realistic images of creatures such as horses, lions, rhinos, mammoths, and cave bears.  At times, an animal might be shown with eight legs, presumably to indicate movement.

I highly recommend this film to anyone with an interest in prehistoric life and culture.  The images will remain in your mind long after you leave the theater.


Donna R. Copeland