Werner Herzog, one of the world’s most prolific documentarians, turns his camera on the former Russian leader who helped to end the Cold War.
Directors: Werner Herzog, Andre Singer
Stars: Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog, Ronald Reagan
Werner Herzog has directed documentaries all over the world. His latest, presented appropriately enough at the Werner Herzog Theatre in Telluride, is not his most visually striking (since it is composed primarily of talking heads), but it is certainly one of his most pertinent and fascinating. Meeting Gorbachev consists of interviews with the last head of the former Soviet Union, and it carries an unmistakably rueful note because of changes in the world since Mikhail Gorbachev left the public stage. Now 87, the former Russian leader has a good deal to say about his legacy as well as his disappointments. Co-directed by Andre Singer, the film was produced by History Channel but deserves a theatrical release as well.
Herzog conducted three interviews with Gorbachev over a six-month period, and he has an obvious rapport with his subject. The doc begins by sketching a quick history of earlier Russian leaders, and there is dark humor in the film’s chronicle of the ancients who succeeded to the top position in the Soviet Union after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982. Two more leaders dropped dead in the next three years, until Gorbachev was named General Secretary in 1985. What happened during his tenure was, of course, remarkable. The Cold War that had divided the world for decades came to an end, partly as a result of a series of reforms that Gorbachev instituted. Eastern Bloc countries that had been under Soviet role achieved their independence. Most dramatically, the Berlin Wall came down, and Germany was reunified in 1990.
These changes are well known, but what may be less remembered is Gorbachev’s role in slashing the Russians’ stockpile of nuclear weapons, in cooperation with the U.S. under Ronald Reagan. In one of Herzog’s interviews, Gorbachev speaks about the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 on him, and this prodded his decision to negotiate with the West to try to eliminate nuclear weapons. Among the most moving sections in the film is Gorbachev’s reflection on the rising threat of nuclear war in recent years.
But perhaps the most stirring sequence is more personal. Herzog asks the Russian leader about his wife Raisa, who died in 1999. Gorbachev recalls their courtship and the instant rapport that they felt, and almost 20 years after her death, he is still moved to tears in recounting the gap in his life.
Although most of the film consists of the interviews with Gorbachev himself, a few other world leaders weigh in on Gorbachev’s legacy. George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, who is now well into his 90s, acknowledges the extraordinary leadership role that Gorbachev took in standing up for nuclear disarmament. Horst Teltschik, national security advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who presided over the reunification of Germany, also praises Gorbachev’s achievements.
Gorbachev’s relatively brief but eventful tenure is far from the end of the story. With a new authoritarian leader in Russia, most of the democratic reforms that Gorbachev tried to institute have been swept aside. Nowadays, many Russians blame Gorbachev for the collapse of the mighty Soviet empire, which Putin is trying to rejuvenate. So there is unmistakable poignancy in the film’s valedictory tribute to the ailing Russian leader. Herzog’s film may not be the final word on Gorbachev, but it is affectionate and candid and leaves audiences in a melancholy mood about the sometimes short-lived nature of reform. Will audiences have the same reaction when a future documentarian conducts an interview with Barack Obama 20 years from now? The precarious nature of “progress” is one of the most provocative themes that this film highlights.
– Stephen Farber, The Hollywood Reporter