Werner Herzog's documentaries have taken him to the wastelands of the Sahara, to the midnight sea beneath Antarctica, to the top of a live Haitian volcano, to blazing Kuwaiti oil fields and to Alaska's grizzly bear country. His new film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," is his most incredible journey yet, traveling 32,000 years back in time to document what he calls "the birth of the human soul."
The setting is the Chauvet cave in southwestern France, home to the oldest known art on Earth. The cave is a vast amoeba of limestone grottos and corridors that was sealed by an ancient landslide until 1994. When explorers opened the cavern, they discovered prehistoric cave paintings of rhinos, panthers, hyenas, bears, tigers and bison created by early homo sapiens. This first example of culture marks the beginning of the process of humanization.
Since the moist breath of tourists to the Lascaux cave damaged its Paleolithic masterworks, the French government has strictly limited access to Chauvet. It is opened for just a few weeks each year to a handful of archaeologists and researchers. The public will never see them directly. The Ministry of Culture in Paris selected Herzog to be humanity's guide. Inquisitive, philosophical and darkly humorous, his 90-minute film is the polar opposite of an Indiana Jones adventure. (It opens at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis on Friday.)
Herzog began the project with the mind-set of a practical craftsman, entering the cave for an hour to study the feasibility of filming there. "I came with a technical mind and it was immediately gone. It was pure, pure awe. I was just completely stunned," he said in a phone interview. The representations of animals were remarkably lively and naturalistic. They even used the cavern walls' undulations as a creative element, signifying the headlong momentum of galloping horses.
"It never got any better. We are back 32,000 years in time and neither in Greek nor Roman antiquity nor during the Renaissance nor in modern painting has it ever got any better," Herzog said. "Art as we call it today bursts onto the scene fully and absolutely accomplished."
Working with a three-man crew, Herzog moved through the cave on metal gangplanks, lighting the eerie world of stalactites and stalagmites by hand with special cool lamps. Their hours of access were brief; in some areas where levels of carbon dioxide were dangerously high they could only work for a few hours at a time.
Creating a film in an environment undisturbed for eons was a remarkable experience, he said. "You see a fresh bear track and you know that track was created by a bear that is extinct since more than 20,000 years."
For Herzog, the ancient paintings are messages from another world. "Time itself is unfathomable for us. We really cannot imagine 35,000 years ago. There you can see a painting that was started by someone and completed by someone else 5,000 years later. We are bound in history and they are not."
The 69-year-old Herzog is a prolific filmmaker who divides his time between nonfiction films and idiosyncratic features. His last effort was "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans," a Nicolas Cage police thriller with such eccentric touches as a break-dancing corpse and a sequence shot from the viewpoint of a crocodile.
Its serious subject matter notwithstanding, this is no dry academic treatise.
"I am not an accountant of facts," he said. During one filmed interview Herzog is tickled to discover that a young French paleontologist at the site was formerly a circus juggler. With one foot in the world of the carnival and the other in science, here is a kindred spirit.
"Ja, sure," Herzog said. "When it comes to an archaeologist who is also a circus man, those are the people who are close to my heart."