TIFF 2018 Dispatch #5: Werner Herzog, on “Meeting Gorbachev”

TIFF 2018 Dispatch #5: Werner Herzog, on “Meeting Gorbachev” September 11, 2018
Werner Herzog and his interview subject, in “Meeting Gorbachev”

If you’re expecting large doses of Werner Herzog’s trademarked quirkiness in his latest documentary, you’d best look elsewhere.  In Meeting Gorbachev, there are no albino crocodiles, no Antarctic scientists obsessed with the length of their fingers, nor any deranged conquistadors hurling monkeys into a swirling river.

The oddness in his newest work is rare and sporadic.  Herzog absurdly, hilariously shows that on the day the Iron Curtain fell between Austria and Hungary, TV news in Vienna led with how to kill garden slugs with beer.  There is also some darkly humorous editing, stacking the macabre state funerals of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko in rapid succession – later contrasted poignantly with the deep grief felt by Gorbachev at the death of his helpmate and confidante Raisa.

But for nearly all of Meeting Gorbachev’s 90 minute run time, Herzog and his co-director André Singer play it straight.  In doing so, they’ve created a valuable history lesson that is transparently relevant today.

Structured around three interviews between Herzog and Gorbachev, in which time the last General Secretary of the USSR turned 87, the film follows a mostly chronological sequence in its biography.  Through archival photos and present-day drone shots, we see that Gorbachev was born in a poor Caucasus farming village.  His mother was illiterate her entire life, his father a decorated World War Two veteran.

Gorbachev, bursting with academic promise at an early age, relocated from the Stavropol region and completed his education at the nation’s leading university in Moscow.  We’re shown footage from a university skit, where he and his classmates lampooned “decadent” Western music and dance.

As a young politician, he pushed through major technological innovations that benefited the people of his home region, earning him notice in Moscow and assuring his rapid rise to the Politburo, and ultimately his ascent to the very top when those three aforementioned leaders died within a span of three years.

The bulk of Meeting Gorbachev focuses on his six years at the helm of the Soviet Union, painting a sympathetic and even tragic portrait of the man, claiming that he achieved much before the unstoppable momentum of communism’s near-total collapse (and Boris Yeltsin’s opportunism) swept him aside.  Gorbachev’s self-assessment is backed up by onscreen commentary from the likes of George Shultz (Reagan’s Secretary of State), as well as contemporaries within the German and Hungarian government.

Herzog is not an aggressive interviewer in the style of his friend Errol Morris, telling the audience during last night’s Q&A that he is decidedly not a journalist, introducing himself to Gorbachev as a poet instead.  This didn’t seem to hinder their dialogue, as Gorbachev is still a spry and passionate storyteller.  (His physical wellbeing is another matter; for one interview, he was transported directly from the hospital to his session with Herzog, a large bandage covering the recent IV site on his wrist.)

The president’s main policies of perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political openness) are reviewed in helpful detail, as are his successful efforts with Reagan – I had forgotten they were opposed by Margaret Thatcher – to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenal.

I won’t give away too many specifics here, but Gorbachev’s take on the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a surprising one to me.  Neither he nor Herzog name any names, but both voice regret at the eagerness of our present leaders in Russia and America to resume the nuclear arms race.  And again, though Putin’s name is not mentioned, Gorbachev appears sincerely saddened by the anti-democratic forces in Russia who are again stealing power from the masses.

(In a strange turn, last night was one of the rare times where the Q&A lessened my appreciation of the directors.  Herzog in particular struck me as shockingly naïve, in voicing hope that perhaps Trump, Putin, and Kim Jong-un could pull a Gorbachev/Reagan move and slow down the atomic arms race again.  For a man who has traveled to North Korea and Russia, who has dug so insightfully into the psyches of murderers and intelligent fools, this idealism flies in the face of these leaders’ current behavior and manifest temperaments.  Either this is Herzog as “poet, not journalist” on display, or these are the pragmatic statements of a businessman who hopes his film will be shown in Russia.)

Fortunately, these uncharacteristic sentiments do not find their way into the documentary itself; and in the interest of full disclosure, it was apparent that Singer disagreed with Herzog on this topic.  And overall, I was grateful for the international perspective added by the German-born Herzog and his British co-director André Singer.  This is a cosmopolitan film that should appeal to audiences well beyond the borders of the USA.

I also felt invigorated, in this time of resurging fascism and nativism worldwide, by the reminders of how non-violent resistance can effect drastic change.  For me, the most powerful image in Meeting Gorbachev is the overhead footage of the 1989 human chain across the Baltic states, in which nearly half the population of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania participated in the name of independence.  If ordinary citizens tore down the Berlin Wall and stopped a hardline coup attempt in Moscow, similarly positive events can surely happen again.

4 out of 5 stars

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