Meeting Gorbachev with Werner Herzog

C+ Documentary
Directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer

Do you ever wonder about something you know little about, so you Google it or go to Wikipedia? I’m beginning to suspect that when Werner Herzog gets that feeling, he makes a documentary.

This time, Herzog picked an exceptionally interesting subject to learn about: Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who brought down the Soviet Union (accidentally) and brought democracy to Russia (briefly). He’s unquestionably one of the most important figures of the late 20th century.

And yet the film isn’t anywhere near as interesting as it should be. Much of the newsreel footage is the same old same old. When interviewing Gorbachev, who seems to be outward and honest, Herzog rarely tries to ask difficult questions. He even apologizes for being German. Stranger, he starts out almost immediately by interrupting Gorbachev; that’s right, he interrupts the man who ended the cold war.

Herzog asks his questions in English. Gorbachev answers in Russian (with subtitles, of course). I assume there were interpreters in the room, and their repetitions of what was just said were thankfully cut out.

If you don’t know your recent history, Mikhail Gorbachev ran the Soviet Union from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. He worked with anti-Communist, pro-bomb Ronald Reagan to massively reduce nuclear weapons. He also attempted to open up the country and its Eastern Bloc, giving people much more freedom than they ever thought they’d have. What he didn’t realize was that they wanted more. Before long, Communism – a form of government Gorbachev wanted only to reform – was dead in Europe and northern Asia.

Herzog doesn’t just show us the interviews. The documentary uses clips from newsreels, narrated in the filmmaker’s famously slow, intense, Teutonic voice.

But Herzog misses the black humor when he describes the events that brought Gorbachev to power. The country was being run by a group of very old men, and when one died, another very old man replaced him. After three deaths in four years, the Politburo finally decided to appoint someone a bit younger.

To be fair, Herzog finds humor elsewhere. The presidents of democratic Austria and the newly-free Hungary publicly cut open the border fence – a very big news story and an early symbol of the fall of the Iron Curtain. So what was the big story on Austrian television news that day? How to catch slugs. The scenes of the Berlin Wall falling, a later and much bigger symbol, are always exciting to watch.

The still-living Gorbachev comes off in the end as a tragic figure. He admits to Herzog that every day he wishes he hadn’t destroyed the Soviet Union. While a hero in the West, he’s often seen as a fool in Russia – the man who ruined the empire. Herzog doesn’t go deep into this paradox.

Meeting Gorbachev opens Friday at the Clay, the Shattuck, and the Rafael.