Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Herzog in Siberia

by LOUIS PROYECT

Back in 1954 François Truffaut coined the term auteur (the French word for author) to describe how certain directors shape their films according to a unique creative vision. According to auteur theory, directors such as Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Jean Renoir put their stamp on each and every film they made, no matter who wrote it or who acted in it.

If, as I have argued, such directors are mostly a thing of the past, it is some consolation that there is at least one exception to the bottom-line, cookie-cutter mentality that has hijacked the movie industry. Werner Herzog in many ways is the last of the auteurs. At the age of seventy, he still sticks stubbornly to the aesthetic and moral imperatives that he obeyed back in 1972 when he wrote and directed “Aguirre, Wrath of God”. The eponymous conquistador, who led a small band of soldiers down the Amazon in search of El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, until he was driven insane, was the prototypical Herzog hero—someone who defies social convention and urban civilization in pursuit of quixotic goals.

This is the same sort of character found in “Grizzly Man”, a 2005 documentary about Timothy Treadwell. Throwing caution to the wind, Treadwell lived in close proximity to the bears he loved in Alaska in a misguided effort to protect their habitat. After a hungry bear devoured his greatest admirer, Herzog tracked down the videotapes that Treadwell had accumulated in the field over the years and made a film from them with his own narration that celebrated someone as possessed in his own way as Aguirre.

Opening at the IFC Center in New York on January 25th and at better theaters across the U.S., is a new Werner Herzog documentary that shares the “sampling” technique of “Grizzly Man”. A few years ago Herzog dropped in unannounced at an old friend’s house in Los Angeles, mostly because there was an open parking spot on the street. The friend was watching some Russian films about hunters in the Siberian Taiga (forest) that captivated Herzog immediately. He then got in touch with Dmitry Vasyukov, the Russian director, who allowed Herzog to whittle down the material to one and a half hours and add his own narration. “Happy People: a Year in the Taiga”, with co-directing credits for Herzog and Vasyukov, is not only a fine addition to Herzog’s body of work but solid proof that Russian film-making has survived the worst days of Yeltsin-style gangster capitalism.

The film was made in the village of Bakhta in the heart of Siberia. The only access is by helicopter (there are no airfields) or by boat on the Yenisei River, iced over 11 months a year. Without radio, television, telephones or Internet connections, the 300 people who live there would seem to be deprived of what most people consider essential to modern existence. Beyond the absence of electronic communications, there is no happypeoplerunning water or medical facilities. Like PBS’s reality-show “Pioneer House”, that depicted what life was like in the 17th century, “Happy People” is a time-travel voyage into the distant past. Unlike PBS, this was no reality show. Instead it is reality.

If Aguirre and Timothy Treadwell were anti-hero incarnations of Herzog’s outsider ethos, then Gennady Soloviev—the hunter-trapper star of the documentary—is a true hero while remaining true to the “uncivilized” paradigm. The film follows him in his daily tasks over four seasons, giving him free rein to meditate on an existence that almost everybody watching the film would view as Spartan verging on torture.

Virtually the only modern tools available to men like Soloviev are the rifle and the skimobile that are essential to his livelihood even if they are by no means more indispensable than the dogs who accompany him on his trapping and hunting expeditions. Despite his deep love for his animals, he does not spoil them. He never allows his favorite dog to hitch a ride with him on the skimobile but forces him to run behind him in the snowy tracks miles from home camp. Despite being work animals rather than pets, Soloviev almost breaks down into tears when he recounts his favorite dog being torn apart by a bear.

Additionally he gets by with a club, a knife, an axe, and a wedge. With these fairly primitive tools, he demonstrates an amazing ability to craft a pair of skis from a spruce tree. Using the wedge to divide the tree lengthwise in half, he then takes meter-long sections that are bent into J-shaped skis after making them pliant through prolonged exposure to heat. It is obviously a skill that he learned from elders just as he is transmitting it to his own son. Although Herzog does not characterize the process, anybody watching it will understand that something has been lost as we become increasingly more urbanized and reliant on manufactured goods. Going to Bakhta through the medium of film acquaints us with a place where time stands still.

In the press notes for “Happy People”, Herzog describes his affinity for Soloviev and his fellow villagers:

“I loved these men out there, loved their dogs. You can never see anything better about dogs. Everything you see about pets in suburban America or big cities, it’s all just a shame when you see a dog like they have; they’re just phenomenal, absolutely phenomenal! And this kind of life of self-reliance, of complete and utter freedom, complete and utter absence of government, taxes, police, rules. They live by their own rules, but according to the dignity of nature; they really respect it and they despise hunters who are only out for money and overhunt and overfish. “

For co-director Dmitry Vasyukov, the contrast between the world of the Taiga villagers and the “New Russia” could not be greater:

“The post-Soviet epoch brought striking changes to Russia in all spheres of our life. We have acquired something, but some things we have lost forever, and something else is on the verge of disappearance. One of these vanishing human values is the lifestyle of professional Taiga dwellers: hunters and fishermen. Hunting and fishing have always been the basis of life for the majority of the population in Siberia, in the Far East and in other faraway north regions. The mode and way of life of these people was created over centuries; the tenor of their everyday activities was built in accordance with the cycles and laws of nature so as not to disrupt the fragile harmony of the environment.”

As I gathered my thoughts about this remarkable film and Herzog’s remarkable career, I could not help but think about the late Alexander Cockburn, whose controversial affinity with rural “outsider” culture resonated with Herzog’s. The reference to a “life of self-reliance, of complete and utter freedom, complete and utter absence of government, taxes, police, rules” might have been uttered by the great journalist at some point in his career in defiance of left-liberal and even radical pieties.

While there are scant references to Herzog on CounterPunch, I did come across this epigraph to chapter one of “The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon” by Susanna B. Hecht, Alexander Cockburn:

“Taking a close look at what’s around on there is some kind of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder … We in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel … And we have become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order.”

–Werner Herzog, “Burden of Dreams”, 1984

The affinity was there.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list.

Werner Herzog website: http://www.wernerherzog.com/

Trailer for “Happy People: a Year in the Taiga”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1pOjj49d9Y

 

 

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail