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 running 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.
Werner Herzog website: http://www.wernerherzog.com/
Trailer for “Happy People: a Year in the Taiga”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1pOjj49d9Y