Magazine | June 03, 2019, Issue

Meeting Gorbachev: Werner Herzog’s Unexpected Documentary

Mikhail Gorbachev in Meeting Gorbachev (Werner Herzog FilmProduktion)

I am surprised to be writing this review, because I am surprised that the movie I’m reviewing, Meeting Gorbachev, even exists. Not because of its subject, Mikhail Gorbachev’s remarkable career and peculiar ghostly afterlife, which is certainly a worthy subject for a documentarian. But because that subject seems such an unlikely one for this particular director — who is Werner Herzog, existentialist documentarian, Teutonic pessimist, the most instantly recognizable narrative voice in nonfiction film. (André Singer is his co-director.)

Herzog has made movies over the years that touch on politics, but only glancingly and incidentally. His familiar topics are the pitiless grandeur of nature (Antarctic, Amazonian, subterranean) and the human being in isolation and extremis — whether a conquistador going mad in the jungle, a bear-whisperer meeting his demise in wild Alaska, or a POW escaping from a prison camp in Vietnam. I always imagined him regarding politics as somehow beneath his notice, its substance as mere ephemera compared with geologic time, its personalities as vain and strutting figures unaware of their animal nature, their foredoomed mortal state.

Yet here he is, sitting across from the 88-year-old Gorbachev and asking him respectful questions about glasnost, looping in Lech Walesa and George Shultz to comment on the Cold War’s final years, weaving together footage both familiar and unexpected from one of the 20th century’s most important, most unusual, most simultaneously admirable and pitiable political arcs.

One of Herzog’s recent films, a 2016 documentary on volcanos, included a characteristically grim reflection that seems well suited to the subject of the Soviet Union’s last emperor. It’s good that we have volcanos, our German Qoheleth ruminated in that film, because they remind us that “the soil that we are walking upon is not permanent. There is no permanence. No permanence to what we are doing, no permanence to the efforts of human beings. No permanence to art. No permanence to science.”

And no permanence to statesmen, either. From the memento homo — “remember you are a man” — that a slave was supposed to whisper to parading Roman conquerors, down to Enoch Powell’s famous line about all political lives ending in failure (unless you’re fortunate enough to be assassinated), everyone knows that political success is always shadowed by eventual disappointment, the provisional triumph by the long defeat.

But it’s rare to find a case where a great man’s triumph and his failure were so tightly bound to one another, like conjoined twins feeding off the same nutrition, as they were for Gorbachev. He ended the Cold War; he lost an empire. He saved the world; he destroyed his own power. He ended a cruel era in his country’s history; he ushered in an era of ruin and collapse. Were these different chapters in his story, or just the same story seen from different angles, through different apertures? Can they be separated? If not, could they have been separated, had events fallen out differently, had Gorbachev’s own choices been different from what they were?

I didn’t come into Meeting Gorbachev expecting answers, but I did hope for some strange alchemy, in which Herzog’s harsh questions and stare-into-the-void style drew out something unexpected from either Gorbachev himself or the historical material, casting the ironies of the Soviet Union’s ending in an unexpected light. Alas, too much of the documentary is straightforward rather than deeply Herzogian, with talking heads and news footage and fairly predictable political interpretations of events, which portray Gorbachev as a prophet of peace without honor in our own forgetful time, and emphasize especially the achievements you would expect a German film to focus on — his efforts to abolish nuclear weapons, his willingness to accept the peaceful reunification of Germany.

Meanwhile there are almost no Russian voices save Gorbachev’s own, making the movie itself an example of the dynamic that doomed him — the contrast between his elevated status in the West and his weaker political position at home, the way he became a celebrity and even a saint in Berlin and London and New York while discontent mounted in the empire he was trying to reform.

That discontent makes its inevitable appearance in the movie — we watch the hapless coup plotters face the cameras, and Boris Yeltsin on the tank, and the cascade of secessions that dissolved the USSR — but we never hear from anyone Russian who might challenge Gorbachev’s rosy claim that “we all won” the Cold War, who might say something more about the sense of defeat and crisis and collapse that’s as much his legacy as the nuclear treaties, who might help explain why so many of today’s Russians prefer the Putinist fist to their old leader’s talk of “cooperation and disarmament.”

Nor does Herzog push hard enough in the moments when Gorbachev himself seems to break with the movie’s message, and you get a taste of his own realpolitik instincts, his own less-than-utopian regrets. “I should have sent him off somewhere,” he says of Yeltsin — a line that’s pregnant with themes the documentary leaves unexplored.

Only at the end, after the political story is over, does a Herzogian element really enter in. The last 15 minutes are given over to Gorbachev the grieving widower (we see him sobbing at the funeral of his much-loved wife, Raisa, dead in 1999), to scenes of him encountering old neighbors and family members, and to a last, strange Russian folk song, which the last Soviet leader half-recites, half-sings for the camera.

This is Herzog’s natural territory — the strange existential position of his subject, the great man who has lived on and on, after all the important others of his time are gone, after his country has turned against his legacy, after his great love perished, and still finds, perhaps against his own desires, that God has days to give him yet.

This article appears as “Gorbachev in Twilight” in the June 3, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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