Werner Herzog sits down to interview the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union in Meeting Gorbachev, a documentary he co-directed with Andre Singer. The film exists to give Mikhail Gorbachev the chance and the platform to ruminate on his life, his political career, and how he felt during such important events as nuclear disarmament while Herzog acts as the guiding and prodding force. As these men exchange words, what comes across is an overwhelming world-weariness brought on by both age and frustration at where the current global political landscape currently is. But there is something more interesting: the palpable sense of warmth that Meeting Gorbachev exudes is compelling if grating at times.
When one looks at the documentary work of Werner Herzog, they find striking images and human stories paired with the director’s voice waxing on about the various philosophies pertaining to existence and the Earth, as well as the grand poetry of the human experience. Yet, Meeting Gorbachev sees Herzog out of his element. Gorbachev is a man of blunt speech patterns and to-the-point mannerisms, and the once-world-leader has no time for Herzog’s usual philosophical leanings. This seems to catch Herzog off guard, and his body language and interview techniques seem to ebb and are molded anew in almost real time. The fact that the main interviews are so compelling is a testament to both the subject and Herzog’s almost preternatural ability to eke out all he can from his interviewees, even if what they say is not a direct answer to the question(s) Herzog poses.
Gorbachev, as a subject, is almost an enigma. He is at times blunt and to the point, but at other times he seems to be speaking in only non-answers as his words and sentences fold into each other. But that is what makes him so intriguing, and by extension, what makes his interactions with Herzog so layered. Meeting Gorbachev is not your usual political documentary. It casts aside the burden of infallible facts for subjective truths, and the film establishes itself as such from the very start.
In the film’s opening moments, Herzog apologizes to Gorbachev for the atrocities committed against the Russians by the Germans during World War II, and that simple exchange fully grounds the viewer. Meeting Gorbachev takes a personal approach to getting to know a political figure, similar to some of Herzog’s more character focused documentaries, like Little Dieter Needs to Fly and The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. But where those films tend to rely on specific gimmicks to break into what makes Herzog’s subjects tick, Meeting Gorbachev is decidedly simple and stripped-down.
There are the occasional reliances on other talking-head interviews and archival footage to work through the history of Gorbachev’s life and political career, but the documentary consists of mostly one-on-one, shot-reverse-shot conversations between Herzog and Gorbachev. This allows the viewer to be wholly subsumed in the reality and tapestries that the shared words of the men create. This simplistic approach to humanizing a monolithic figure in political history is a breath of fresh air in the sense that most people know the history and legacy of Gorbachev, but what was once unknown becomes known in just how he felt during such globally shifting events and how he saw his stance in all things political and personal.
The personal nature and subjective look at one’s own political legacy is also the main flaw of Meeting Gorbachev. Herzog obviously looks up to Gorbachev as if he is a quasi-religious figure, and the filmmaker treats every question he asks as if the answer that follows will forever change the world. Herzog never pushes back against Gorbachev. We only ever get the world and history as Gorbachev views it. But maybe that is the point. In a political landscape where everything hangs on a wire’s edge, it is refreshing to just see two people share words as a feeling of warmth and kinship fills the room. Yet, I cannot help but be mildly bothered by the fact that Herzog, an ever thematically confrontational artist, chooses not to ask Gorbachev any hard questions. At times, the film even feels indulgent.
The most pointed moment only comes when Herzog asks about Gorbachev’s late wife: “How much do you miss her?” Gorbachev simply states, “When she died, my life was taken from me.” Tears begin to crack through the blunt front that Gorbachev puts on, and at that moment Gorbachev seems his most humanized. Yes, there are segments where he laughs and Herzog even indulges him with some sugar-free chocolate cake (Gorbachev is both diabetic and in failing health).
In the end, Meeting Gorbachev is a fascinating but un-revelatory documentary about a man who helped to usher the world into a new era. It is a warm film with anti-nuclear weapon and pro-peace sentiments that feel all too needed and as prescient now as they were 30 years ago. Herzog’s interviews and narration push and pull between being utterly in love with Gorbachev as a subject and a human being and Herzog’s usual desires to more deeply understand the metaphysical relations that ground both the singular and greater human experience.
Meeting Gorbachev plays like a fireside chat between two world-weary figures whose major life experiences were formed and molded in a different, more chaotic era. But history, if not properly understood, is likely to repeat itself, and the film is underpinned with the inevitability that Gorbachev’s forward-momentum in disarmament and bettering world-relations will, in time, be undone. Yet, the man that is Mikhail Gorbachev will always remain, in life and in history, and Herzog and Singer seek to better comprehend and celebrate that person and what his name will always represent.