On first glance, Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Meeting Gorbachev, doesn’t feel much like a Werner Herzog movie. Herzog, who co-directed the film with the British director André Singer, is known for depicting the furthest extremities of human experience and pushing the boundaries of filmmaking as a medium, but this is a fairly conventional, chronological, biographical documentary, featuring an interview with a very famous subject, various talking heads, and archival footage, the sort of thing that wouldn’t look out of place on the History Channel—one of its producers.
The moment when things clicked into place for me was when Herzog, in his trademark Bavarian deadpan, read a quotation from Alexander Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev’s key advisers during perestroika: “It was as if we were blind men trying to trade a mirror to deaf people in exchange for a balalaika”—a Herzogian image if there ever was one.
While it’s not immediately obvious, the last Soviet president fits well into the lineage of Herzog’s doomed, quixotic protagonists. In political terms, trying to liberalize and reform the Soviet Union without the whole system falling apart was roughly the equivalent of living among wild bears or dragging a ship over a mountain. Not that the German auteur necessarily sees it that way. Speaking by phone from Los Angeles last week, Herzog denied that this sort of extremity of character was the reason he was interested in Gorbachev. “I’m very much fascinated by looking into the hearts of men,” he told me. “Looking into our human condition. It was totally natural that I connected so easily with Gorbachev.”
The project began with Singer, best known for the Holocaust documentary Night Will Fall. Herzog was brought in to conduct the interview with Gorbachev and narrate the film and ended up co-directing it as well. “I was very aware that his contribution would make it a very different film and a better film,” Singer told me.
This isn’t only because of Herzog’s uniquely direct interviewing style. (At one point, he asks the widowed Gorbachev if he can still smell the perfume of his late wife, Raisa.) Thanks to Herzog’s role as Gorbachev’s interlocutor, the movie also becomes a meditation on the historical relationship between Germany and Russia. Herzog begins the interview by telling the former president, who grew up during World War II, “Mikhail Sergeyevich, please allow me to explain myself. I am a German, and the first German that you met probably wanted to kill you.” (This turns out not to be true: Gorbachev has childhood memories of a family of Germans who sold delicious pastries.)
“The souls of Russians and the souls of Germans are not that diametrically opposed,” Herzog, whose wife is Russian, told me. In the film, Herzog describes the two countries as having a “common destiny” and tells Gorbachev of Germans, “We love you. I love you in particular, because reunification [of Germany] for me personally was important.” The topic is indeed personal for Herzog, who, several years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when German politicians seemed to be abandoning the goal of reunification, set out to walk around Germany on foot, “always carefully following the border, because it was clear now that only poets could provide unity.”
The documentary touches on all the key points of Gorbachev’s life, including his hardscrabble upbringing in a remote village in the North Caucasus (“It is hard to imagine that from such a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century emerged,” Herzog intones in the narration), his rapid rise through the Communist Party bureaucracy, the rapid deaths in rapid succession of the three increasingly decrepit Soviet leaders who preceded him (their carefully choreographed state funerals are shown in a morbidly funny montage that recalls last year’s The Death of Stalin), the heady days of perestroika and glasnost, the groundbreaking nuclear diplomacy with Ronald Reagan, the attempted coup of 1991, and finally, the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Cold War luminaries, including two former U.S. secretaries of state, James Baker and George Shultz, are brought in to attest to Gorbachev’s accomplishments. The Polish former opposition leader Lech Walęsa is the sole dissenting voice, dismissing Gorbachev as an outmatched apparatchik who deluded himself into thinking communism could be reformed.
Gorbachev is shown as a lonely and isolated figure, but he is generally magnanimous, with a few exceptions. He does bristle when asked about his handling of the Chernobyl disaster and can’t help saying of Boris Yeltsin, “I should have sent him off somewhere.”
If you’re familiar with all this history, you probably won’t learn much new stuff from the film, and if you’re not, it may not be the best starting point. As Singer acknowledges, “It wasn’t meant to be objective. It was our attempt to come to grips with Gorbachev’s nature, rather than to interpret the events of the 1980s.”
For Gorbachev, sharp and feisty at age 88, the interview is an opportunity for legacy burnishing. “No matter what anyone says, the proposals to end the Cold War came from the Soviet Union,” he tells Herzog. The former Soviet president is having something of a moment in the sun this week. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday, he warned of “the madness of nuclear deterrence,” employing a brilliantly Chekhovian description: “Nuclear weapons are like a rifle hanging on the wall in a play written and staged by a person unknown.” Singer says it took extensive negotiations to persuade Gorbachev to sit down for the documentary, in part because of an apparently dormant planned biopic from Leonardo DiCaprio.
While celebrated in the West, Gorbachev is deeply unpopular in Russia, where he is blamed for what current President Vladimir Putin has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”—the breakup of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the documentary was shown at the Moscow Film Festival last month, where Singer, who was in attendance, says it was enthusiastically received. Gorbachev, under treatment for the effects of diabetes, was unable to attend.
Putin and the current Russian government are not explicitly discussed in the film. Herzog told me, “It was clear we were not going to speak about Russia today or politics today. I’m not a pundit, but I can only say that he and Vladimir Putin have differences of opinion but they respect each other.” Generally, the film avoids commenting explicitly on contemporary politics, except for some general warnings about the dangers of nuclear weapons. “It’s a shame that the current American president declared that he will modernize their nuclear arsenal,” comments former German national security adviser Horst Teltschik.
But Herzog is clear that he believes the Gorbachev era has lessons for today. For one thing, he told me, “The demonization of Russia is a very serious mistake by the West. The real dangers are not coming from Russia.” He added, “I wish we had somebody like him again and I wish we had somebody like Ronald Reagan. Nobody thought they’d connect and together they did extraordinary things.”
In one striking moment of the documentary, Herzog intercuts footage from his 1992 documentary, Lessons of Darkness, depicting burning Iraqi oil fields in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. In that film, released at a time of post–Cold War Western triumphalism, the apocalyptic scenes are intended to show a world descending into chaos and madness. In Meeting Gorbachev, released at a time of comparative anxiety and uncertainty in the West, they accompany Herzog discussing Gorbachev’s backing for the U.S.-led military intervention, which he notes as a watershed moment of U.S.-Soviet cooperation. If Werner Herzog, of all people, is dispensing earnest paeans to the liberal international order, we must really be in trouble.