'Meeting Gorbachev': Werner Herzog Seeks the Heart and Soul of Russia
By Ron Deutsch
Over the span of a few weeks, Werner Herzog will have had three films released. There is the world premiere of a feature film at Cannes, Family Romance LLC, shot in Japanese with Japanese actors; the festival premiere of his BBC documentary, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, at Tribeca Film Festival; and the theatrical release of Meeting Gorbachev, which he co-directed with longtime collaborator André Singer.
Documentary spoke on the phone with the 77-year-old filmmaker about the latter, which is somewhat of a departure from what one might expect from a Herzog documentary. Herzog was approached by Singer, who had been sold the idea of doing something about Gorbachev for German television and decided to ask Herzog to join him on the project. In the film, Herzog thrice meets with the ailing, but still sharp, former head of the Soviet Union, probing him on topics ranging from nuclear disarmament to the fall of the USSR. The film also veers towards a March of Time documentary at times, featuring archival footage of Gorbachev’s life, both political and personal, with Herzog’s trademark narration as our guide. Singer also recorded interviews with other political luminaries of the last quarter of the 20th century, including Poland’s Lech Walesa and former US Secretary of State George Shultz.
You have said that this is a film about the Russian soul.
Werner Herzog: That's an exaggeration. I made it as a side remark. Fleetingly, I'm trying to capture a glimpse of the Russian soul and the soul of the man—in this case, Gorbachev.
Well, let's go there then. You've also said that “Gorbachev knows the heart of men more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
I have said that also of myself. You should make films only if you know the heart of men. And that's what I do. That's what makes me a filmmaker. I do have insight and immediate rapport with human beings. I'm speaking both of documentaries and feature films. So if you don't know the heart of men, you shouldn't make films. I do recognize it in other people, whether they are filmmakers or not—and in the case of Gorbachev, it's evident.
What did you see in him?
I think the film itself is the answer. He had very deep insights. He knows his past, he knows where he's standing right now, and he knows what's coming at us.
How was the film’s screening at the Moscow Film Festival?
The co-director of the film, André Singer, was in Moscow. But what I heard is that it was an absolutely full screening, and very warm applause for Mikhail Gorbachev, who could not attend.
Gorbachev is back in the hospital again, I understand. Have you spoken with him?
No, but yesterday we had a phenomenal reception at the LACMA [the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art] screening, which was also sold out and, clearly, a standing ovation for Gorbachev. The film was very well received, and I said I would report it in the form of an email to Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. And all of a sudden the audience rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
In the film, you speak about how he is blamed by Russians for the collapse of the Soviet Union....
Some parts of the population. It's not a general thing.
Do you think that the film will help change that opinion?
I do not know, but I have observed that apparently the climate is changing in his favor again. I'm saying so since last time I was in Moscow, when you speak to people in the subway, there is a much warmer attitude towards Gorbachev than a year before.
To me, the centerpiece of the film is concerning disarmament of nuclear weapons. Do you think it's something we can tackle? Do you have hope for that? I know you are neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but what are your thoughts about that.
My caveat is that I'm not a pundit. When you look at the very dangerous situation that we had seen recently with North Korea and the West, I do believe the situation for the moment is partially diffused. My hope is that although there is no treaty or contract yet, it will bring some results, because both sides looked beyond the horizon. The same thing that Gorbachev did with Reagan—the most unlikely characters uniting in Reykjavík in Iceland looking beyond the horizon. And now, of course, I'm speaking of Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un.
You've said you felt that perhaps Gorbachev was avoiding answering your question about why it seems so difficult for humanity to get rid of nuclear weapons. Why do you think that?
Well, he was avoiding a bigger question, which is not in the film. I wanted to discuss with him Japan in 1603. Ten years prior to that, 1592 or '93, there was a huge field battle. Two very large armies clashing. It's very well documented in historical records. Out of 180,000 samurai soldiers, one-third had firearms. After that, the samurai decided they should abolish firearms. There was no formal consensus or anything, but they more or less abolished them. Then later, in 1603, there was a battle, which also is fairly well documented, and there were only 26 firearms. So that's a sensational sort of thing, but it didn't last long. Firearms came back big time. So I asked him what is the intrinsic nature of these systems like firearms or nuclear weapons. But you have to see Gorbachev, 87 years old by then, and see that he's a little bit inflexible in his thinking. He would not pick up a thought that was unknown to him. He would answer in his normal, regular, almost mantra: “No matter what, we have to abolish these weapons because they are too dangerous.” You are pointing to a very interesting moment in our discourse, where he did not fully pick up the thought and the intellectual proposition that I made.
You've also said you're not a political filmmaker, but to me it seems that you go beyond politics. And, in doing so, you're still commenting and critiquing politics, as it's all part of humanity in that way.
When we look at Meeting Gorbachev, if it had been a political film, I would have discussed with him the situation right now: “What to do? Give us advice.” But Gorbachev did not want to do that. And I think it's more about his legacy, his momentous historical events and the end of the 20th century, and his role, and his personality, and his memories of all these events.... and all of it has to do with Russia. What is Russia all about? You understand a lot when you look at the archival footage, for example.
I mean this as in the demise of the fossils [as Herzog dubs in the film the Soviet leaders who came before Gorbachev], with Andropov and Chernenko. Within two-and-a-half years, three leaders of the Soviet Union passed away. Each time, you see the same ritual. It looks very strange and also in a way it looks like a tragedy. It's very Russian. You would never see a funeral like this when an American president passes away. You just don't see those kind of pompous, strange funerals.
Is that the way Russia is still?
No, it is certainly shifting because Russia is moving back to the origins of its soul, which is orthodoxy, partly a newly-formed nationalism which comes because of the pressure from outside, and of course an awareness of the dangers that are lurking for Russia. The expansion of NATO is felt as an existential threat, and not only by the political establishment; it is the majority of the people who feel like that.
You have to look at the history of Russia. For 500 years, there were almost annual invasions by Mongols, and Tartars, over-running Russia and Siberia, and looting and plundering and raping. And then you have Teutonic knights in the Middle Ages attacking Russia. You had Napoleon moving with his armies all the way to Moscow. The Nazis invading Russia, which cost them 25 million deaths. It is understandable that Russia is sensitive about dangers coming at them. Of course, it may be exaggerated, but that's the Russian feeling about such historical threats. There are very credible opinion polls that show more than 56 percent feel an existential threat. An existential threat like that would be felt in America if all of a sudden Canada joined the Warsaw Pact and held maneuvers in Saskatchewan—200,000 Russian soldiers and a 100,000 Canadians doing military maneuvers at the border with the United States.
Do you see yourself in some ways though making political statements in your films?
No, no. I'm not into that business. I'm a filmmaker. I'm a poet.
Well, that leads perfectly to my next question. You've always talked of your love of poetry and that you, in a sense, wanted to write poetry with film. And you said you came to Gorbachev as a poet, not a journalist. What is it that you find in poetry? And how do you see it in filmmaking?
Poetry is an intrinsic element of movie-making. There is no doubt about it. I'm particularly into it because, when we speak about my documentaries, I have always tried to move away from the naked facts and find something more illuminating beyond the facts, something I have labeled once “an ecstasy of truth.” And it's very closely related to poetry. We would have to talk for 48 hours and I would have to show you many examples in films—not only by me, but some others as well—to make it understood. Let's not lose ourselves in this way. But I want to say that I am tired of films that believe that stating the facts and facts alone is all that documentary filmmaking is about. It's the same as when you speak of literature. You take the Manhattan phone directory with four million entries, every single one correct and verifiable. But it is not the book of books because we do not know why Mr. Jonathan Smith—and there are 20 of them—is crying into his pillow each night.
Can you give me an example in this film where you find poetry in it?
We have to be cautious because this is an exception to my filmmaking because it was not my original idea to make a film on Gorbachev; it was André Singer’s. So when you are dealing with a film like that, you cannot go into wild fantasies—for example, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which has an eight-minute-long postscript about radioactive mutant albino crocodiles. It's completely and utterly wild, but nobody ever forgets it. It's because I put my arm around the audiences' shoulders and I transported them into the realm of poetry and illumination. You cannot introduce radioactive albino crocodiles in a film about Gorbachev.
But there is poetry in this film. For example, you see the solitude of Gorbachev when he goes back to his little home town and meets his old aunt, who is blind and barely recognizes him [a scene not filmed by Singer/Herzog, but excerpted from Vitaly Mansky’s Gorbachev: After Empire (2001)]. There's something very deep and poetic about it. And then he himself recites a great poem by Lermontov, which I think Lermontov wrote on the night before he died in a pistol duel. It is so beautiful that I had to repeat it in an immediate text scroll afterwards again.
What do you take from that poem?
It illuminates, in a way, not only him and his soul, but it somehow gives us a feeling of what the Russian soul is all about. Beyond that, you just have to read the poem, and if you don't know then and right there what I'm saying, you shouldn't watch movies. [To read Lermontov’s poem, click here.]
In this situation, when co-directing, how did you and Singer decide what roles to take on?
We have a long 25 years of collaboration, more in co-productions, but he is a very deep thinking man and totally loyal. We did a small film in Africa in Southern Ethiopia at the border with Sudan and Kenya. We had to sleep in a tent together, and both of us felt uncomfortable that night because there was something under the floor of the tent that felt like a big stick or something. In the morning, we discovered it was a big snake. When you sleep on top of a snake with somebody, you start to trust each other.
How we divvied up the roles came while we were moving through it. I was originally just there to do the conversations with Gorbachev, but I grew more and more into it. I started to shape the film by writing the commentary and speaking it myself. André was very good in editing and extremely good in archival research. We had a phenomenal team of archival researchers, and hence you have some extraordinary things you've never seen in a movie before. We made the same mistakes and corrected them. For example, there was a very first version of the edit, which was done in London. I flew in and we saw it and my heart sank because my role in the film was way too pronounced, and André had the same feeling. We said, “This is a mistake, and we have to reduce my presence almost entirely,” which we did. We formed the relationship in this case while we were moving ahead. But that only functions if there is a concordance of hearts, if there is an intellectual integrity, and a deep loyalty towards each other. It cannot be articulated in written contracts. Contracts are hopeless in such situations, you see.
What were the challenges for you in making this film?
The challenges were in the limits that I had. I wish I could have taken Gorbachev to his home village in the Caucuses. I wish I could have debated with him about Japan 1603. I wish I could have this, that, and the other, but I had to live with what was there, and the fact that every single time Gorbachev was on camera he had to be brought in an ambulance from the hospital....every single time. You had to look at your counterpart and consider if he was getting tired, or if he was feeling unwell. Every minute there is some sort of alertness that you normally don't have when you do a conversation on camera.
Were you concerned that Gorbachev would possibly pass away before you finished interviewing him?
No, that was never in my mind. He's a strong man, a strong character, and he's battling illness, which he's doing with bravery and distinction. I liked him for his attitude.
You were doing the interviews with simultaneous translation. Can you talk about that process and how it worked?
We had to use his trusted interpreter. So I heard simultaneous translation of Gorbachev's Russian and he would hear through an ear plug my English questions. It worked quite well. What is strange when you watch the film, is sometimes Gorbachev makes very long pauses, but it's not because he’s waiting for translation. He says something and then pauses six or seven or nine seconds and continues his sentence. And I'm saying nothing. It's just that I sense that something more is coming. So the silence is very, very unusual and you have to cope as the one who does—I'm not speaking of interviews, but I'm speaking of conversations—one has to listen to the silences as well, and you must not get nervous that he is not saying anything for a long time, then, all of sudden, as an afterthought, the best things are coming. I don't speak in terms of interviews; I had no catalog of questions like a journalist. I just came man-to-man, a discourse of conversations.
I was curious of your thoughts about history. What does it teach us? How does it shape us?
You're asking me something that shouldn't be in this interview. We would need a couple of days together to ruminate over it.
I would like to say something that when you look at Gorbachev and you look at Reagan, you get the feeling that the current demonization of Russia is a big mistake. It's in the Western media and Western politics. We should return to a mood of the time where the most improbable characters—Reagan and Gorbachev—got together and spoke to each other. And they were real enemies at that time. The Cold War was then much, much colder than today. The dangers were much bigger than today.
As a final note, I just wanted to say that watching the footage in the film about the fall of the Berlin Wall is something that always touches me. It was a moment when I felt there was real hope for the future, you know?
And it was not orchestrated by politicians. It was the people. Hundreds of thousands who demonstrated each week—the famous Monday demonstrations. And, of course, the communist regime in East Germany always spoke in the name of the people, and then all of sudden hundreds of thousands met and chanted, “We are the People! We are the People!” When you see that footage, you get goose-bumps. It's the people. Or the human chain between the three Baltic nations—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania —650 or so kilometers, almost half of the entire population of the three countries held hands and formed this chain. When you see that—it was the people who pushed politics ahead. That is very important to remember.
Meeting Gorbachev opens in theaters May 3 through 1091 (formerly The Orchard).
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman.