Werner Herzog's latest documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which premiered in the UK last night, provides a fascinating window on an archaeological site that few of us will ever have the chance to see "for real." The Chauvet Cave, in France's Ardeche Valley, contains humanity's oldest dated art-works, going back around 32,000 years but, to protect the art-works themselves, it is necessary that the cave remains closed to all but a handful of scholars. Herzog and his small team were given only 24 hours of access to the site, making this masterpiece (his first and, he has hinted, his last, in 3D) all the more remarkable.
Herzog's interest in prehistory is long-standing, but has not always been obvious. In his short autobiographical film, Portrait Werner Herzog (1986) he did say that the great project of moving a ship over a hill in Fitzcarraldo (1982) was inspired by his fascination with the prehistoric transportation of large stones.
Here he gives full expression to this life-time interest, but he deliberately eschews interpretation, allowing the art to speak for itself. The art of the cave walls, together with the footprints left by the painters and the charcoal from the torches with which they lit their way, constitute what Herzog poetically describes as "frozen fragments of a moment in time."
Except, of course, that there is not one moment, but a mosaic or palimpset of many different ones. In some cases, the paintings begun by the artists of one generation have been completed, or added to, by artists up to five thousand years later (roughly the same time period as separates us from the builders of Stonehenge).
A woolly rhinoceros painted on a cave wall appears to be charging, its horn depicted several times in a manner reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge's photographic sequences of galloping horses. On a stalactite, a being with the head of a bull and the body of a man, like a Picasso minotaur, appears to embrace a naked woman. It is easy to make comparisons with better known sites, such as Lascaux in the Dordogne, yet most of the paintings at Lascaux date to around 17,300 years ago, making its artists almost equidistant in time between Picasso and the painter of the Chauvet "minotaur."
On the floor of the cave, the footprint of a boy sits alongside that of a wolf. Was the wolf pursuing the boy, Herzog asks, or did they enter the cave together as "friends," or were they in the cave at entirely different times? "We will never know," he insists.
By coincidence, next week will see the launch of Jean M. Auel's novel, The Land of Painted Caves (Crown), the final installment in her six-part narrative of one woman, Ayla, and her epic journey from her birthplace near the Black Sea to the painted caves of the Dordogne, around 25,000 years ago. Auel's journey as an author (beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear in 1980) has, if anything, taken longer than her character's physical journey through the landscape and it must have felt, at times, as though she was walking on shifting sands.
If Auel were planning the storyline today, knowing what we now know, she might well have chosen to conclude Ayla's journey in the Ardeche rather than the Dordogne, and specifically at the Chauvet Cave where, not only do the paintings better fit her chronology but, in an uncanny echo of her first book, the skull of a cave bear seems to have been placed deliberately on a rock, "somewhat like an altar," Herzog helpfully suggests.
In his response to questions at last night's premiere, Herzog emphasised the similarities, at least in his work, between documentary and drama. Clearly he is a master of both, just as Michelangelo was a master of both the "frozen moment" of sculpture and the narrative drama of painting, but different genres make different demands of both the artist and the viewer or reader.
Faced with the footprints of the boy and the wolf, the novelist or dramatist, unlike the documentary maker or the archaeologist, cannot simply accept the real ambiguity of the evidence at face value. The wolf and the boy must be portrayed, perhaps even given names, and they must either stalk each other through the alien environment of the cave, or face it together as companions, as Ayla and her tamed wolf do. This leaves the historical novelist or dramatist uniquely vulnerable to changes of interpretation and understanding after they have committed words to print, and requires of the reader or viewer a "suspension of disbelief" when aspects of the narrative seem to conflict with the latest "scientific" interpretations. Authors, in their turn, must suffuse their work with general themes (in Auel's case, the communication between different "intelligences," reflected in Ayla's interactions both with Neanderthals, and with horses, wolves and lions) so as to give their work a relevance that goes beyond simply explaining evidence, or recreating a past society and its forgotten hopes and dreams.
Nevertheless, the similarities between these two artistic projects, arising from the same inspiration, is brought home in the final scene of Herzog's film, in which he reports on the escape of albino crocodiles from a nearby wildlife park into the Ardeche River. For these crocodiles, as for Ayla's ancestors (and ours), the landscape and environment are alien, yet they seem remarkably capable of adapting to it and, of course, they have their own perceptions of their new world (even, potentially, of us), an understanding that we can only guess at.