A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Caves of Nerja discovered, 1959
On this day in 1959, the Caves of Nerja were discovered. Or rediscovered. Stretching for about 5 kilometres close to the town of Nerja, Malaga, Spain, the system was entered by five friends who decided to follow a flock of bats into a locally well known small opening in the ground. This led to a narrow passage. And this led to a huge cavernous grotto now known as the Cascade Room. With the lights they had available they were able to make out the enormity of their find. They pressed on, accompanied by the sound of the beating of bat wings, and soon discovered what is now known as the Hall of Ghosts, where they found two skeletons. Frightened, they beat a hasty retreat. Further expeditions, by professional archaeologists, confirmed the importance of this find. From the evidence of the human bones found, and the cave paintings also evident, it appears that the caves were inhabited seasonally by humans from about 40,000BC for about 4,000 years. At this point the caves became permanently inhabited, and evidence from pottery shards, animal bones and human remains tells us that they were used for the housing of animals, the production of pots and the burial of their dead. In 2012 it was announced that some of the paintings on the cave walls might have been made by Neanderthals, since this was one of the last areas where they are believed to have lived. Which would make the Nerja caves unique.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010, dir: Werner Herzog)
When Werner Herzog made this film in 2010, it was believed that the Chauvet caves in the South of France contained the oldest pictures created by human beings. At around 32,000 years old, they were around twice as old as anything else then documented. Much of what Herzog then goes on to tell us, in hushed awed tones – about Neanderthals not being capable of art – turns out, in the light of the discoveries at Nerja, to be questionable. But his belief, that these drawings must be seen as the work not of the Palaeolithic ancestor of modern humankind but of modern humanity itself, is still worth considering. Herzog’s commentary reminds us, that even in his most operatic dramatic works, such as Fitzcarraldo, there has been a strong element of the documentarian at work. And his notion of the “ecstatic truth” in documentary film-making – which, according to his own Minnesota Declaration is “mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation,” – finds its ideal subject material in this cave onto which Herzog can project his romantic fantasies and theorisations. Sometimes this can be expressed in the most appallingly crass way, such as when a scientist leading Herzog and fellows into the cavern calls for quiet, claiming it is so silent down there that everyone will be able to hear their heartbeat. Herzog adds a heartbeat to the soundtrack, then compounds the crime with a doubly winsome “it is our heartbeat too” remark, as if this were a true moment of connection back to our flintstonian forebears. This apart, remarkable things to note include the fact that it’s shot in 3D, which is not only unusual in a documentary setting but also something Herzog considers a “gimmick of commercial cinema”. However he believes it is peculiarly appropriate here since it helps to yoke the pictures on the walls to the contours of the cave beneath and hence reveal the intentions of the artist. We are given an extended guided tour of the caves, their remarkable paintings, and we’re shown the “Palaeolithic Venus” (the representation of the female form that is remarkably similar, no matter where in the world it is from), and the drawings of grouped horses heads so fresh they look like they were done yesterday. The Germans have a love of the ethnographic, the romantic and the magical, and all combine in this underground adventure cheerled by one of the world’s most engaged, fascinating film-makers.
- Access to caves usually closed to the public
- See it in 3D – if you’ve got the technology
- “A frozen flash of time” as Herzog puts it
- An unusual documentary from a true maverick
© Steve Morrissey 2014