TIFF 2018: Comrades – Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev

Untold Horror’s Dave Alexander is covering various films showing at TIFF for Biff Bam Pop!

It’s a strange thing when the personality of documentary filmmaker threatens to eclipse his subject. Such is the case with Werner Herzog. The prolific German auteur – now in his mid-70s – has himself become legend. While making Aguirre: the Wrath of God (1972), he pulled a gun on antagonistic star Klaus Kinski; the 1978 documentary La Soufriere saw him travel to an evacuated island to film a dangerous volcano; in 1979 he literally ate his shoe after losing a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris; for his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, he had his cast pull a boat up a jungle mountain; in 2006 he pulled Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck; and in 2011 he was shot during a live interview but brushed it off and kept going. Most recently, he announced that he secretly shot a feature in Japan using non-professional actors – and he doesn’t speak the language.

The cult of Herzog continues to grow…

With his latest doc project, Meeting Gorbachev, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, one wonders how much of his idiosyncratic personality appears onscreen. As it turns out, there isn’t as much of his philosophical narration and diversions down strange sideroads as we’re used to from a filmmaker whose documentary on prehistoric French cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) features him saying “Fairly soon, these albinos [he’s talking about alligators, FYI] might reach Chaucer Caves. Looking at the paintings, what will they make of them? Nothing is real.”

Co-directing with longtime collaborator Andre Singer, Herzog’s aim is to shine a spotlight on a man who most of us, at least in the West, have, well… sorta of forgotten about. Mikhail Gorbachev was the President of the Soviet Union, from 1990 until 1991, which may not be a long time, but it was an extremely pivotal one. During that period, as Meeting Gorbachev illustrates, he ended the Cold War through his policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). This led to a relationship with the West, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the independence of various countries formerly under soviet rule, and – most importantly – denuclearization. But, his policies came at a cost, and his political enemies at home conspired to remove him from office, painting him as a villain for causing the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Herzog, however, loves him (he tells him this directly), and he and Singer paint a portrait of a tragic hero. Through a series of three interviews with the 87-year old Gorbachev, additional interviews with former politicians and policy makers of the Cold War era, and ample historical footage, we meet a very proud yet occasionally jovial man who deeply loves his country, is still anguished over the loss of his wife to leukaemia in 1999 and remains wracked with regrets over how his political career ended.

It’s a touching portrait, and may be one of the last appearances Gorbachev is able to make, as he’s ailing from diabetes-related complications. During the post-film Q&A, Herzog related how his subject would be taken to the interviews in an ambulance, directly from the hospital, and then immediately return afterward. Despite this, Gorbachev requested a completely unexpected third interview, such was his rapport with the filmmakers.

While the movie celebrates the life and accomplishments of Gorbachev, there’s a chilling reminder that creeps into it about those who forget history being doomed to repeat it. While it barely mentions Putin, and no one speaks the T-word that rhymes with “dump,” by the end of Meeting Gorbachev, it’s clear as vodka that a return to the Cold War days of chest-thumping nationalism, nuclear threats and paranoia is a great tragedy. There’s plenty of food for thought here.

Of course, if all this sounds like it’s a sobering experience lacking in weirdness, fear not, there are some wonderful oddball moments in the film, notably one involving a television broadcast about beer and slugs. Werner Herzog simply wouldn’t have it any other way.

(l-r) Andre Singer, Werner Herzog, Thom Powers

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