Review: Meeting Gorbachev Tells a Familiar Herzogian Lesson of Darkness

Werner Herzog’s documentary is a rare example of the arch ironist’s capacity to be awed not by nature but by man.

Meeting Gorbachev
Photo: The Orchard

In a fittingly perverse way, it makes sense that Werner Herzog waited until last year to make a film about Mikhail Gorbachev. Herzog’s view of humanity has always tended to the darker side, to put it mildly. So it would have felt odd for him to have chosen Gorbachev as a subject in the 1980s and even ’90s, when the former leader of the Soviet Union was being feted as the architect of a peaceful end to the Cold War. Better for Herzog, who last seemed truly comfortable in the company of humans when interviewing murderers for Into the Abyss, to film Gorbachev when the once celebrated hero is viewed by many of his countrymen as a traitor and the cautious détente he helped establish is coming undone.

Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by British filmmaker and anthropologist Andre Singer, is an unashamedly celebratory portrait of a man whom the German director views as a towering figure. “Everything about Gorbachev was genuine,” Herzog marvels in his whispery guttural narration as the filmmaker’s crew and his 87-year-old subject fuss with microphones and pleasantries while setting up the shot. (No Errol Morris straight-on omniscience here.) And everything that Herzog presents after this point reinforces that impression.

The son of poor farmers, Gorbachev grew up a smart kid in a Caucasus village (which Herzog dryly describes as “a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere”) at a time when famine was a very real possibility. An ambitious star student, he joined the communist party and rose quickly to become an agricultural official “beloved” by peasants for his rare humility. After completing a massive canal project that had eluded Stalin’s abilities, Gorbachev was vaulted into the top ranks in Moscow in the 1980s. The rash of fatalities that swept away three frail general secretaries (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko, who Herzog terms the “last of the fossils”) in less than three years placed the vibrant young Gorbachev in power in 1985.

It was a hinge moment. The new leader knew from his unusually careful inspections as agricultural apparatchik that the state of the Soviet Union was rotten. “More democracy!” Gorbachev exclaims to Herzog in explaining the goal of his perestroika policy. Sick of corruption and the black market, but no fan of the piratical capitalism now afflicting his home country, he was still a good student of Lenin and Marx: “I also wanted more socialism!”

That same reformist impulse produced glasnost, the political transparency that shocked a Soviet population used to shadow theater. It also powered his drive for nuclear disarmament, which began in earnest after the 1986 catastrophe of Chernobyl, which was like an X-ray of the dangerous laxity at the heart of the Soviet system. Herzog lays out in crisp succession the steps that the energetic Soviet general secretary took with such leaders as Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl, and Margaret Thatcher to sweep away the decades of mistrust. Gorbachev worked with his putative enemies to dismantle everything from nuclear weapon stockpiles to the vast prison that was the Warsaw Pact, wryly commenting to Herzog that “the Americans thought they’d won the Cold War and that went to their heads…we all won!”

Herzog is helped along in this stretch by old Republican foreign-policy greybeards like George Shultz and Jim Baker, who relish talking about their old rival, who belongs to their vanishing breed of statesmen. That’s very much how Herzog views his subject, seeming to even enjoy how Gorbachev’s keen optimism continually clashes with the director’s chilly ironism. Herzog cannot help but see his once-celebrated and now frequently vilified subject as anything but a tragic figure. He notes how the wave of openness that Gorbachev set in motion also sealed his own fate as change turned to chaos: “The center itself became centrifugal.”

Besides being a skillfully constructed and vibrant historical portrait, Meeting Gorbachev also thrums with that certain unmistakable Herzogian darkness. Near the end of the documentary, in footage from the 1991 funeral of Raisa Gorbachev, the director lingers on a shot of a young Vladimir Putin stopping at the casket to pay his respects to Gorbachev’s wife of 37 years. For just a moment, this stately documentary turns into a horror movie.

 Director: Werner Herzog, Andre Singer  Distributor: The Orchard  Running Time: 90 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2019  Buy: Video

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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