Wednesday 27 November 2019

Union man: "Meeting Gorbachev"

Meeting Gorbachev must be the first Werner Herzog documentary of recent times to land on our screens with next to no buzz whatsoever. (To some degree, it's already been overwritten by Herzog's subsequent Family Romance, LLC., currently doing the festival rounds.) There are a couple of reasons for this. First, as a filmmaker, Herzog has typically been drawn towards extremes: think of the ski-jumping hero of 1974's The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, or the doomed Timothy Treadwell, sticking his head into bears' mouths in 2005's Grizzly Man, or indeed those pathfinders the filmmaker interviewed in the Antarctic for 2007's Encounters at the End of the World. Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, eighth and final president of the Soviet Union, is by any definition a moderate: calm, unflustered, happily married for 45 years, someone trusted by millions to keep a steady hand on the tiller. The director has had to come in from the fringes to meet his subject, hence the prologue that sees Herzog present the now 87-year-old Gorbachev - bald as he ever was, though a touch bloated by diabetes - with boxes of sugar-free chocolates by way of a gift. Second, Herzog appears delighted just to be sitting in the same room as his interviewee: there isn't a cutaway where he's not seen beaming, and in a three-minute stretch towards the end, we hear this famously uncompromising cineaste apologise for a nasty remark Helmut Kohl sent the Soviet leader's way before unreservedly declaring his love for Gorbachev. From the very first question, Herzog is aware of the historical significance of this occasion: a German and a Russian sitting down in peacetime for what will likely be the last major interview the statesman of the pair will give. The question we onlookers have to wrestle with is this: does a happy Herzog make for heartening cinema?

For a while, the approach does feel overly conventional, reverential even. Meeting Gorbachev has as its basis three interviews undertaken in 2017-18, the results of which have been interwoven with drone shots mapping the landscape from which Gorbachev emerged, and rare archive footage describing his rise to prominence. (This latter is the kind of photographic and video material a filmmaker only gets access to after negotiations with a powerful subject's self-named foundation.) Interesting as it is to see the handsome figure Gorbachev cut in his university days, and the message he self-taped to refute the claims of those leading the 1991 coup d'état against him (presented here with authenticating tracking issues), I suspect students of Soviet history and politics are going to want a more rigorous line of questioning than the fanboying filmmaker pursues - something more on Afghanistan, say, or Reagan, or Putin (seen in spectral passing among the mourners at Raisa Gorbachev's funeral). It's an instructive story, nevertheless: how a farmer's son, raised with no particular privilege on his side, took an express elevator through the ranks of the Communist Party, and by virtue of an internationalist outlook (verified here by those political players he met along the way) helped to secure peace at a time when it seemed East and West were beyond reconciliation. While squeezing fifty years of especially seismic world events into ninety minutes, Herzog finds his own pockets of fascination. He turns the one-two-three demise of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko at the start of the 1980s into both funereal black comedy and an illustration of the collapsing order Gorbachev defined himself against; Chernobyl, likewise, serves as an example of the old ways of running things - the structural incompetence, the mishandling of a grave nuclear threat. Yet Herzog also posits that the theatre of politics exists on the same city block as the theatre of the absurd: he wryly inserts a clip of Hungarian news giving less prominence to the cutting down of the Iron Curtain than it does an outbreak of slugs.

As Meeting Gorbachev goes on, its subject himself begins to seem like a relic of another time, seen pottering around old haunts in flickering video footage and quoting a Lermontov poem that reads unnervingly like an epitaph. So the film becomes a legacy document, and you start to twig what it's getting at from a clip Herzog finds of Margaret Thatcher talking about her working relationship with the Communist leader, observing "He believes in his system, as I do in mine... we're unlikely to change one another"; nevertheless, she concedes, "we can do business together". What the archive footage shows us is the - to 2019 eyes, weirdly jolting - sight of politicians not just respecting but admiring, even charming one another: the convivial coverage Herzog digs up to illustrate Reagan and Gorbachev's meeting at the 1986 disarmament talks in Reykjavik presents as the inverse of all those photos of world leaders giving their contemporaries the cold shoulder or stink eye at the latest G8 summit. Reflecting on many of those leaders' stated aim to beef up their nuclear arsenals in the years ahead, Horst Teltschik, a former adviser to Helmut Kohl, laments the return of "eye for an eye" policymaking, a comment that provides a stark contrast with Gorbachev's final summation of the Cold War: "It was our joint victory. We all won." So, no, this isn't one of Herzog's more extreme or out-there undertakings, but Gorbachev looks to have won his interrogator over towards a recognition that now is not the time for further extremes; that it is, instead, a moment for sober, sensible reflection, the kind of mulling over that permits mature societies to learn from their mistakes. That's the thing about backroom diplomacy, as both subject and filmmaker have come to understand: you don't have to make a big song-and-dance about it, and more often than not it succeeds in moving us all onto a happier, healthier state of being.

Meeting Gorbachev is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI Player.  

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