It would be inaccurate to call Happy People: A Year in the Taiga the newest Werner Herzog film. The actual footage was shot by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov for a four-hour television documentary about a group of Siberian trappers who live in the remote Siberian village of Bakhtia; Herzog simply culled 94 minutes’ worth of his favorite scenes and added his own typically quirky, heavily accented voiceover. Vasyukov doesn’t share Herzog’s keen eye for landscape or his attention to detail, and unsurprisingly, much is lost in the translation between his images and Herzog’s narration, making for an unimaginative, formally limp documentary that’s disjointed at best and unwatchable at worst.
Had Herzog shot the footage in Happy People himself, we’d likely have an entirely different and certainly superior film. The icy terrain of the Taiga, with its endless snow and howling winds, shares multiple characteristics with the Antarctic, where Herzog shot his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World. Both films portray isolated communities nestled within barren terrains, examining the ways they operate and proliferate despite harsh living conditions, but with Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog is far more connected to his subject; his running commentary is both an insightful and deliciously capricious reaction to his subjects’ resourcefulness, such as his incredulous reaction to a machine that serves soft-serve ice cream, something he deems unnecessary in a place surrounded by ice.
The villagers depicted in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga lead a far more rustic existence—the sort of living Herzog would have relished documenting in all its winter-bitten nuances. Instead, he’s willingly demoted himself to a mere spectator, narrating Vasyukov’s footage with feigned and otherwise forced interest. For someone who’s constantly in search of a so called “ecstatic truth” (according to Herzog, a “mysterious and elusive” truth that’s only attainable through “fabrication and imagination and stylization”), he’s content to simply recount the actions that unfold on screen; his observations, usually nuanced and filled with a backward but nevertheless whimsical sense of logic, are dull and unenlightening. It’s tough to watch Herzog indulge in self-parody, which is unbecoming of him and ultimately worthless.