When Werner Herzog took a seat in front of the audience at Cinema Village East on Friday, following the Tribeca Film Festival screening of his new documentary, Meeting Gorbachev, he said he was still in a rage over a question he had recently received. Someone had asked him how he let Mikhail Gorbachev get away with the “lie” of saying “we tried,” regarding Gorbachev’s self-described attempt to turn the Soviet Union into a democracy (albeit a socialist one).
“My answer was: ‘On. What. Planet. Do. You Live?’” the legendary German director spat. “On what planet do you live if you don’t see how deep and how incredible his statement is. But the stupids do not die out and when you have to face them, you better lower your head and charge.”
That statement was met with applause, perhaps because of its larger sociopolitical implications. Herzog said Gorbachev, conscious of his legacy, didn’t want to discuss Trump or Putin (by name, anyway) during the course of their four conversations, but both men loom over the documentary as the sort of authoritarians that the populist leader of the Soviet Union positioned himself against. Gorbachev and Reagan’s success in reducing the number of nuclear weapons—lauded in the documentary by Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz— seems especially remarkable given that their Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was recently suspended by Trump and then Putin. (Just yesterday, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed written by Gorbachev and titled “The Madness of Nuclear Deterrence.”)
Herzog says he accepted co-director Andre Singer’s invitation to interview Gorbachev because he had “deep respect and love for him, for the role he played in the reunification of my country.” (After some initial resistance, Gorbachev withdrew troops from East Germany and supported German self-determination as well as the reunified country’s bid for membership in NATO. West Germany, in turn, gave much-needed financial aid to the USSR.)
During their first meeting, Herzog cracked the ice by telling Gorbachev, “You’re not meeting a journalist; I don’t have anything written on me, I don’t have a catalogue of questions. You’re talking to a poet.”
According to Herzog, “he laughed and said, ‘Wonderful, I know hundreds of poems by heart, would you like to hear them?’”
Herzog clearly has nothing but admiration for his subject, so don’t expect this to be an interrogation along the lines of Errol Morris’s Donald Rumsfeld documentary. At one point, Herzog said, the director even asked Gorbachev to recite a Pushkin poem for the camera (Gorbachev declined and half-sang another poem instead.)
“He brought the wisdom of his region [The Caucases] into the film,” Herzog said. “The life of peasants, connection to the land, all the conflicts that he had in the history of the Caucases— not only just the Soviet Union and Second World War; he carries all that in his soul.”
Warner attempts to capture this by using years-old footage of Gorbachev visiting his old family home in Privolnoye, where he and his brother have a loving reunion with their blind aunt. The director wanted to take Gorbachev there himself, but it seems the 88-year-old is in very poor health. “Gorbachev, each time I filmed with him, was brought in by ambulance to my cameras and then taken back straight away by ambulance,” Herzog said. “One of the meetings, you see him with a bandage on his hand; it was actually his intravenous drip.”
Even when he’s not in the hospital, Herzog said, Gorbachev is “literally a hermit,” and “has been withdrawing more and more, particularly as his wife, Raisa, died [in 1999].”
The death of his wife and constant companion clearly devastated Gorbachev (footage shows him weeping at her funeral). Herzog said members of the leader’s entourage told him he might want to avoid the subject altogether. But, Herzog said, “We were, in a way, speaking from man to man in a very deep way and I thought I should ask the question.”
And so Herzog asks, as only he can: “Do you remember her voice, her laughter; her smell, the perfume?” and then: “How much do you miss her?”
To this, Gorbachev answers that when she died, “my life was taken for me,” and appears to be too emotional to continue.
According to Herzog, this powerful moment almost didn’t make it into the film. It was mistranscribed as “my wife was taken from me” and edited out.
The lesson for film students: “Don’t edit on paper,” Herzog insisted. “Look at your footage and find what really has the depth.”