Reflecting on his current documentary about former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog says the film is about more than the life of the former statesman.
“It’s about the Russian soul. You see the manifestation of Russia’s soul in Gorbachev,” Herzog explained to an audience at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival Doc Conference on Tuesday (Sept.11). In a discussion with TIFF documentary programmer Thom Powers, Herzog spoke about how his latest film Meeting Gorbachev fits into his decade’s body of work.
As a documentarian, Herzog has had a long and fruitful relationship with the Toronto fest. Some of Herzog’s films to appear at TIFF over the years have included 2010′s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2011′s Into the Abyss and 2016′s Into the Inferno.
The Gorbachev project originally came to Herzog from his long-time collaborator, director and producer André Singer (Night Will Fall). The duo met decades ago when Herzog was working on the 1992 documentary Lessons of Darkness, which looked at the ravaged oil fields of post-Gulf War Kuwait.
Singer asked Herzog if he would take the project on, to which the director replied, “Yes, I can do this – and it would be a joy to do it.”
The director told Powers he could not do a film on anyone without deep respect or even love for the subject. Herzog’s respect for Gorbachev stems from his status as the leader who allowed for a reunification of Germany without the spilling of mass bloodshed or violence.
Herzog conducted three interviews with Gorbachev between the autumn of 2017 and the spring of 2018. While he did pre-interview preparation and research, he wasn’t coming to the meetings with the mindset of a journalist. Herzog’s goal was not to interview Gorbachev, he admitted, as much as it was to have a conversation as a means to understand the former politician.
Herzog described his subject as “stubborn” – especially in the last meeting when he refused to sit in the chair that had been placed in relation to lighting, sound and the cameras. Gorbachev decided to do the interview in his office despite Herzog’s warning that the cameras could not be moved into the room. To that, Gorbachev said, “Let’s do it without the camera.”
In haste, Herzog’s cameraman grabbed a small digital camera and shot the director’s last meeting with Gorbachev via handheld.
“I had my surprises and he [Gorbachev] was forceful. I had to follow the flow and I enjoyed it,” said Herzog.
In telling his story, Herzog said that with the popularity of the statesman in the West, it was relatively easy to find significant archival footage. However, the hunt for archive would require the team to sometimes complete an in-depth search when the director wanted footage of specific moments from Gorbachev’s life.
For example, Herzog wanted a piece of footage that William Taubman described in his 2017 biography of the leader, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, in which Gorbachev was receiving a medal from former USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev for opening a canal. During the ceremony, Brezhnev forgot both Gorbachev’s name and why he was receiving the medal.
He knew Taubman must have seen that footage somewhere and sent his team to find the corresponding materials – which they eventually did.
Herzog said when he was putting the film together he didn’t want to “mess around in contemporary politics” but instead shed light on how Gorbachev achieved “things that were unthinkable” during the Cold War, like meeting former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The two leaders were able to connect and worked together to quell the nuclear arms race of the day.
However, the legendary filmmaker did tie the relative peace of that era of détente to today’s current geopolitical landscape in his comments to Powers.
“The demonization of Russia is not productive. I do believe that Russia would be a much more natural ally to the West than other big powers,” said Herzog. “Hopefully it will return, the climate might shift, and maybe this film could play a little part in it.”