I had two hopes for this documentary.
The first was to demonstrate that 3D technology for films could be more than a gimmick, that it could add a whole ‘nother dimension to the film as well as cumbersome glasses.
In that hope, I was not disappointed. Whereas with Thor I found the 3d had bare moments of interest, in this film I found it continually gave the caves a sense of depth and claustrophobia that was exactly what I wanted. It enhanced significantly my appreciation of the dimensional component of the cave art, which otherwise would probably have appeared flat. Bravo Mr Herzog, bravo.
Secondly, I was hoping for a glimpse into a world almost beyond imagination, separated as we are by an “abyss” of 30000 years. The scale of humanity’s memory is shrinking all the time as the rate of change accelerates, and I wanted this documentary, as I found the Bronze Age work I did for my classics degree, to rediscover or at least reinvent a world long lost.
In this, the results were difficult to interpret. Herzog did not attempt to synthesize his raw visual information into a narrative, either of the science of exploring the cave, nor of what that science might reveal. Nor did he make any substantial attempt to construct a narrative from the surviving paintings. Perhaps this is just as well, the inferences for Bronze Age sites are often based on such scanty evidence as to make the impossible seem more likely. That design decision rendered this experience not so much a film, or a narrative, as a meditation.
The inserts of discussions with scientists and archaeologists were all superficial, intended more to add flavour and character than depth. Perhaps even more than flavour, they provided a lively accompaniment: living people alongside long-dead art. They relieved the oppression of the cave, while contributing elements to the meditation: no more than that.
Also perplexing was the epilogue, a discussion of the warm swamplands nearby created by coolant from the nuclear reactors. Here, and only here, Herzog explicitly poses a series of questions about what it means to be human, and to create art. But he chooses to do so via a discussion of albino alligators in an artificial environment. It does not feel like any kind of natural continuation of the previous work, though it is slightly interesting in and of itself.
In the end though, I have concluded that withdrawing all sense of story from the construction forces you to almost live in the moment of the cave experience. Instead of your brain processing data, it is free and yet constrained simply to be in the cave, in the moment of experiencing the environment and the artwork, of living in the dark and claustrophobia.
Discussing the artwork itself is beyond my ability to do properly. I found it stunningly beautiful and effective in its context. As a charcoal sketch in a notebook, it’s impossible to say how much I would like it.
Whatever its shortcomings, this is a must-see documentary: you will never have another opportunity to experience these caves in this way, and it will enrich your life if you do.