The standout moment in Werner Herzog’s new film comes when an eccentric archaeologist is demonstrating how Palaeolithic people might have hunted, using a reconstructed model spear. After one throw, Herzog begins to ask him a question, but the man has already turned to retrieve his weapon; without missing a beat, out comes the order from behind the camera – ‘Stay here’ – the man obeys, and the question resumes. It is a humourous, unexpected and rather thrilling utterance which literalises Herzog’s commanding presence over his work: here is filmmaker whose drive to investigate and to exhibit will not be curbed by such petty nuisances as politeness or wasted time.
That voice of Herzog’s – heavily accented, articulate, affecting – has become a trademark presence in his recent documentaries. So conspicuously authored, they are of course as much about Herzog the filmmaker as they are the subject – in Grizzly Man he went so far as to conduct a full-blown philosophical argument with deceased protagonist Timothy Treadwell. But we don’t mind because he’s such an entertainer, his enthusiasm is so infectious and his material so fascinating.
Here there is nothing but passion for his subject: the world’s oldest known drawings in the Chauvet caves in southern France, recently discovered in pristine condition having been sealed off and preserved for over 30,00 years by a rock-slide. Herzog, being Herzog, gains unprecedented access, and wonders whether he is witnessing the birth of art and of the human soul. His narratorial statements mix wonder with faint absurdity – the cave is ‘an enchanted space of imagination where time and space lose their meaning’ and a sequence of five rhinoceroses overlapping, possibly representing movement, is ‘a form of proto-cinema’.
You want to go with him, and two things help. The first is the 3D filming which, when close-in to the cave walls, does convincingly add an illusion of depth that makes them all the more interesting to look at (a tick for the new technology here). The second is Ernst Reijseger’s intriguing score: orchestral, choral, quasi-religious – but with a hint of discord and underpinned by strange, otherworldly glottal noises that reminded me of Björk’s Medulla. Herzog ends the film with the camera simply taking in these paintings whilst the music plays – a noble sequence, in that is trusts in the power and beauty of the images (with sound) to hold your attention, but one that’s arguably slightly too long.
Of course he also finds countless other things to keep you fascinated. There are golden nuggets of fact: when these paintings were made, the landscape and sea-level was such that one could walk from London to Paris. There’s an incredible sighting of albino crocodiles. And there are the minor characters he meets, such as the man in an Inuit costume who plays ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ on a reconstructed 30,000 year old flute, or ‘master perfumer’ who forgoes the professional palaeontologists’ method of searching for hidden caves by feeling for air with their hands or cheeks, instead going around smelling random cliff faces for tell-tale ‘cave-like’ odours.
It’s strange, rich, funny, moving – and as always with Herzog, you feel as if the whole thing is a celebration not only of what he’s discovered but of the capability of cinema itself. A joy to watch.