During two brief periods a year, a few select paleontologists, geologists and other specialists receive special permission from the French government to pass through a vault-like door on a cliff above the Ardeche River in southwestern France. Once inside the Chauvet cave, they become members of an exclusive group — those who have witnessed, in three dimensions, the oldest known art in the world.
Discovered in 1994, the 32,000-year-old cave paintings show bears, bison, tigers and horses ranging with life-like movement over wavy limestone walls. To preserve the images, France has strictly limited entry to the cavern. But among those granted access last spring was filmmaker Werner Herzog, who took in a 3-D camera and brought out a 90-minute film that gives viewers entrée to a spectacular place to which they would otherwise never be admitted.
"There were more people in that screening room just now than have ever been in the Chauvet cave," said Zach Zorich, a senior editor at Archaeology magazine, gesturing toward 100 working and armchair archaeologists emerging from an advance showing of "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" at a theater beneath a hip SoHo hotel earlier this month.
Though a few specialists in attendance objected to Herzog's treatment of scientific fine points, a number called the film, opening Friday in Los Angeles, a landmark in the popularization of archaeology — "the antithesis of Indiana Jones," said one.
But as Herzog told a leading prehistorian who pointedly challenged him during a Q&A after the SoHo screening, he didn't really make a film about archaeology. Or about art, either. The roots of humanness itself, Herzog said in an interview, are what he found in the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave, as it's officially named.
"In making this film," he said, in the semi-formal, German-accented English well-known from his films, "I found a world that is like a far-distant echo of the origins of the modern human soul, the same way cosmologists found a background radiation all-pervading the universe as the last remaining echo of the big bang. Maybe this is the first time humans give evidence of themselves in the future."
The result is pure Herzog oratorical, punctuated by spiky humor, ending with a riff of surreal visual philosophizing about the limits of perception. To call it a film about a cave is like saying his documentary "Grizzly Man" was about bears. But the lyrical yet studied script makes it clear that Herzog, who has been fascinated by Paleolithic cave paintings since childhood, felt a deep responsibility to a cultural patrimony whose value transcends borders.
"I knew I had a task beyond this film, and that is to leave something for the memory of the human race," he said. "It sounds pretentious, but we know the cave will never be open for the general public. We know this is the only real film document of the cave, and that is one reason it was done in 3-D."
Herzog talks often these days about how, at 12, he was entranced by a book about the caves at Lascaux, another French site not far from the one in his film, whose roughly 17,000-year-old images seemed phenomenally old until the discovery of Chauvet. He saved money working as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy it. Later, he was dismayed upon hearing that carbon dioxide exhaled by thousands of visitors had degraded the Lascaux pictures. That history, and having visited remote digs with his archaeologist grandfather, led him to feel that making the film "was destiny."
He finds alter egos in the artists whose ghosts he touches with his cameras, calling their paintings "proto-filmmaking." He wonders about them — "Who were these people?" — as if they were distant family. But he didn't seem pleased in SoHo when Randall White, a prominent Paleolithic art expert from New York University, chided him for leaving too much to wonder, not giving the cave-painters their recognized anthropological identity.
"I was surprised to not see the word Aurignacian in the film," White stated sternly, adding that their culture is known by that name as fully as the Etruscans are by theirs. Herzog, uncharacteristically flustered, answered that too much scientific detail would "chase away our audience," He said he wanted to make a film both informed and accessible. That goal, he told the group, also guided the music developed for the film by his old collaborator Ernst Reijseger, which echoes discoveries of prehistoric flutes made from bird bones in other European caves.
Herzog turned professionals working at Chauvet into members of his cast, playfully coaxing them away from their roles in the institution the cave project has become. Yet Zorich and others say that the film builds carefully on the work of scientists who have been part of the cave story since the day — Dec. 18, 1994 — three climber-researchers led by Jean-Marie Chauvet detected a telltale wisp of air from a crack in a cliff.
Squeezing through narrow passages, they descended to a large cavern full of glistening stalagmites and stalactites. One of the climbers spotted a drawn animal and shouted: "They were here."
And they hadn't had human company in at least 19,000 years, since a long-ago landslide closed up the cave.
Herzog's way inside started with a 2008 New Yorker story about the cave by Judith Thurman. Erik Nelson, a producer with whom Herzog has repeatedly worked, showed it to the filmmaker. Their biggest problem was getting inside, a feat even Thurman didn't manage. It helped that Frederic Mitterrand, France's minister of culture (and a nephew of the country's former president) was a Herzog fan. The filmmakers agreed to give the French the rights to show the film in schools and museums. "We made them our partners," Nelson said.
Unlike most crews on 3-D movies, who work on elaborate soundstages and backlots, the team on "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" had to capture their image in tight spaces, on narrow metal walkways and within government-limited times. They were restricted to four hours a day, mainly to limit their exposure to toxic gases. They could bring just three light panels.
"Cave" is Herzog's first foray into 3-D filmmaking, and while he called the equipment "clumsy," he expressed delight with how the technology makes the cave blossom in the mind. He said his biggest regret was that certain conditions hindered filming of a beautiful owl. "I do have some doubts whether these people understood themselves as artists, but this was great art," he said. "You go to antiquity and Renaissance painting and the 20th century, and it never got better. It has something youthful, something dynamic, confident."
Herzog, who lives these days in Los Angeles, turns 69 in September. He's well into his next film, about how death-row inmates in Texas and Florida face the end of life. Ideas for others "come at me like burglars in the night, and sometimes three or four at a time."
The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni once said he admired Herzog for how he works "on a knife edge between reality and surrealism." Reminded of that remark, Herzog smiled and launched into a discussion of the decidedly surreal ending of "Cave," which touches on a nuclear power plant and some crocodiles, and wraps up with the German literary concept of the doppelganger, that of a ghostly alternative self whom anyone could meet at any moment.
The images in the cave reach out to 21st century viewers with the humanity of our artistic doubles from 32,000 years ago.
"What were they thinking, the people who made this art?" Herzog asked. "We enter the cave but we cannot enter their minds, so we will never know?"