Inspired by a Judith Thurman article in the New Yorker detailing the 30,000+-year-old artworks (hidden in caves in Southern France) the writer was not actually granted personal access to, Herzog and his crew gained exclusive rights to film the mysterious spaces through the French Ministry of Culture and set off to capture what Herzog terms as “the possible birth of the human soul.” Their time and resources are extremely strained: they’re only allowed in for a few hours at a time, they must keep to a 2 ft.-wide metal walkway so as not to disrupt the fragile interior, and many of the most intriguing pieces require some unpacking from ethnologists and archaeologists. As a result, a surprising amount of the film’s time is given over to actual experts, which is an interesting but less cinematic alternative to Herzog’s wild philosophical musings.
As a result of the need to convey the vast historic significance of these pieces, Cave is a good deal drier than the average Herzog doc, but it still finds room for some of the idiosyncratic helmer’s notorious flights of fancy and personal touches; in one scene, he can’t help but probe one of the scientists’ past work as a circus performer; in the endlessly amusing postscript, radioactive albino crocodiles serve as a signpost into the distant future. Moments like these, as well as the unusually probing nature of the works themselves, make for essential, if not always exctiing, viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of art as a means of distinguishing us from the rest of the food chain. If it doesn’t excite you, one of the other three projects Herzog has in the offing might do the trick. Doubtless he could have taught early man a few things about creating enduring art.
– Simon Howell