Meeting Gorbachev

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In Werner Herzog’s latest documentary (co-directed by André Singer), Meeting Gorbachev (2019), the subject of the film, Mikhail Gorbachev, comments that anyone who isn’t in support of disarmament or cooperation has no business being in politics. A strong message from an elder statesmen with no shortage of wisdom for our present, topsy-turvy world. The documentary offers the veteran filmmaker/documentarian (he’s only been at it for some 57 years!) Herzog’s usual thoughtful and incisive narration, aided by intimate and illuminating archive footage and a truly interesting human being as subject. It’s clear at the outset that Herzog deeply admires Gorbachev, and over the course of the documentary, it’s hard for the audience to not share his feelings, at least to some degree – as the last leader of the U.S.S.R. (serving from 1985-1991), Gorbachev steered the Soviet Union toward peaceful reform and a deeper engagement with Europe and the United States, was instrumental in efforts toward nuclear disarmament, helped to reunify Germany and effectively end the Cold War. The documentary shifts effectively between an intimate portrait of Gorbachev, and a broader analysis of major world events, paying attention to both the larger than life personalities who moved the needle on key global issues and the masses of regular people who came together to literally force reform on reluctant heads of state. At a time when the values of cooperation and disarmament seem perilously in doubt, Gorbachev’s example of a thoughtful, reform-minded politician reminds us that the right leadership, in response to the will of the people, can steer major world events in a generally positive direction in a surprisingly short amount of time.

The documentary both tells the story of the man, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the story of his work and accomplishments as the leader of the Soviet Union. Early in the documentary, we learn of Gorbachev’s humble upbringing and the strong work ethic passed down from his father. Gorbachev was intelligent as a youth and a quick learner. He grew up around agriculture and some of his first professional accomplishments focused on this sector. His family was involved in the Communist party in the Soviet Union, and over time he rose through the ranks, distinguishing himself through a number of novel practices (for example, walking the countryside to meet the peasants and learn about their concerns). At one point in the film, we witness a shocking period of time within the Soviet Union, when a handful of older / ailing leaders in the Communist party died in quick succession. In the wake of these unexpected events, Gorbachev emerged as a relatively young Premier. Interviews with various key political figures of the time (primarily key allies in the US and Germany) round out the portrait of a man who, in their words, “you could talk to”. We learn how important Gorbachev’s relationship with his wife was, and how he took her everywhere with him when on official business as Premier (something which was not done previously). Power was ultimately wrested from Gorbachev while he was on a vacation, leaving his long term vision for his country unfulfilled. This, in Herzog’s estimation, makes him a tragic figure.

One of the most fascinating things in this documentary is how Herzog draws our attention to the little details that accompany major historical events. At one point, we see archival footage from around the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, when countries in the Eastern Bloc were demanding independence and taking down some of the barbed wire border fencing (the early stages of the fall of the “iron curtain”). At the time, this was covered as “miscellaneous news” by the local outlets, who instead featured a story on the incredibly important topic of … grubs! We also see archival footage from when Gorbachev was being made to resign as Premier of the U.S.S.R. At one point, we see members of the Party try to pressure Gorbachev into signing his resignation on camera, and generally create a humiliating media spectacle. Gorbachev refuses this and signs the documents before the cameras go live, managing to retain his dignity if not his control over the country and its future direction.

Another layer to this documentary – the kind of secret sauce that makes it something more than just a documentary about an important political/historical figure – is the relationship between Herzog and Gorbachev and the obvious ways that, at least Herzog, sees himself in Gorbachev. Any fan of Herzog knows he is a force of nature. He was once shot with an air rifle during a live interview and continued on with the interview without much fuss. His creative output is prodigious and his curiosity seemingly without bounds. His favorite subjects often revolve around truly original people in extreme circumstances pursuing unlikely dreams, and/or the theme of his perhaps most well-known work, Grizzly Man (2005) – man in conflict with nature. In Gorbachev, Herzog has a worthy and fitting subject. Gorbachev lived during an extreme time, and his ambitions were equally outsized. He is a man whose destiny took him on a collision course with major world events. Having lived through WWII and the destruction wrought on the Soviet Union by the Nazis, Gorbachev comes to the interviews with Herzog (an older German man), with a unique perspective, and, one could assume, some deeply rooted anger and resentment. Herzog addresses this dynamic at the outset and Gorbachev is quick to dispel any notion that he harbors ill will toward Germans or Herzog in particular. Over the course of the film, it is clear that more than anything the men feel for each other a kind of mutual respect and affection. It is heartwarming to see Herzog and his crew surprise Gorbachev during the documentary with a birthday cake. Toward the end of the film, after it is clear the two have developed a kind of trust and chemistry, Herzog probes a sensitive subject for Gorbachev – his relationship with his wife and the effect of her death on his life. Gorbachev was so clearly in love with his wife and her passing was so devastating for him, it is difficult to watch him process this loss on camera. But it is also fascinating to see him so vulnerable, and to get a glimpse into his private world and emotional life; an opportunity we would likely not have were Gorbachev not so enamored of the man behind the camera.

In the early stages of the documentary, I started to worry that this was just going to be a story about older White men and all of the (cue sarcastic voice) great things they have done to change the world. Herzog does obviously focus on Gorbachev and his contemporaries who were in positions of power throughout Europe and the United States at the time, but a sincere and thoughtful amount of attention is also given to the large movements of normal people on the ground. Key moments in the documentary that illustrate this are several bits of archival footage depicting an enormous human chain spanning several Baltic states, demanding independence from the Soviet Union; masses of people taking over Soviet tanks in the streets; and the German people coming together to take down the Berlin Wall. In each of these moments, we clearly see that leadership does not operate in a vacuum. The effect of watching this documentary now, as an American in 2019 is profound. The present relationship between the US and Russia is obviously fraught, and some could reasonably say we are in the thick of a new Cold War. People in either country are not necessarily looking at their respective leaders and seeing portraits of “compromise” or “disarmament”. In one (Trump) they may see the kind of “reckless” politician Gorbachev warns against in the documentary. In the other (Putin), they may find someone who is not so much concerned with the people or with their independence / democratic freedoms as he is with his own control and domination over them. It is obviously disheartening when leadership does not align with the people, when it seems at odds with the needs of the moment. But the heartening truth, communicated in this documentary, is that the opposite is also possible and in evidence at various points throughout our history – the right person can come at the right time, and help to direct the course of the future toward more democracy, more freedom and more peace for a great number of people.

At one point, Herzog asks Gorbachev what he wants written on his tombstone. Gorbachev doesn’t directly answer this question, instead saying he is fond of the words on one of his friend’s tombstones: “I tried”. Gorbachev, in his role as politician and leader of his country, managed in no small part to live out and spread the values of reform, peace and cooperation, creating a great ripple effect that is in some ways still felt today. Herzog’s documentary is a fitting tribute to this legacy.

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