My generation of enthused moviegoers knows Werner Herzog as either: a) The German guy with the thick accent who opposed Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher
b) The director who made Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and now Happy People
No offense to the Reacher-ites out there, but the latter is considerably more impressive. According to Wikipedia, Herzog has made 25 documentaries in his storied career. Happy People may cover the most interesting subjects of all: villagers who make their living trapping, hunting and fishing in the Taiga, a massive Russian wilderness that is larger than the entire United States of America.
Herzog bounces back and forth between those men, lifelong residents of the village Bakhta, and the land itself: cold, forbidding, virtually inaccessible for the bulk of the calendar year. Its brief summers are followed by endless winters. Its indigenous people, a dwindling group of laborers briefly discussed in the film, have been reduced to alcoholics who work menial jobs and harbor great resentment toward the Russians. Everything about the area exudes harshness.
It’s a lifestyle that most of us can’t possibly imagine: leaving your wife and children behind for months at a time, relying on your dog for assistance and companionship, spending years perfecting skills like trap building, canoe construction and ski forming. Especially the skis; those who spend most of their lives navigating the snow-covered Taiga laugh at our shitty mass-produced replicas.
But while the content of the film is sensational, something that can’t be overlooked is the film’s visual quality. Herzog turned four hours of footage shot for a Russian television series into this movie, and it shows. Epic shots that pan over the frozen nether regions of Russia should be beautiful, but instead they’re grainy and unimpressive.
Contrast that with the aforementioned Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where Herzog gorgeously presents a gaggle of underwater specimens that tickle his fancy. Every shot is stunning, aided of course by exotic creatures and locales but also captured with the big screen in mind. Even his wonderfully odd Nicolas Cage vehicle Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans felt more impressive visually, thanks to its innovative iguana cam.
But the real draw with a Herzog documentary is his fascination with the world. On the hit podcast Comedy Bang Bang, Paul F. Tompkins portrays Herzog as a man terrified by nature, constantly searching for ways to destroy it. But in his more recent films, Herzog seems more mesmerized by what lies beyond his reach or understanding. Whether it’s a man who lives among bears or the strangest “fish” the world has never seen, he obviously takes some sort of pleasure in collecting and distributing these natural oddities to us on film.
And, of course, Herzog is not exactly an impartial observer. One of the film’s highlights is when he interrupts to inform us that the dog on screen ran alongside a snowmobile for over 24 hours in an attempt to reach home in time for a New Year’s Eve celebration. Herzog has always been unconventional, and I’m always delighted at how his distinct personality infects each documentary in its own special way.
The men of the Taiga seem to truly adore being ensconced in nature, traipsing through never-ending snowbanks, patiently waiting for sable to fall into their traps, not a soul in sight. I suspect that most people accustomed to modern Western civilization would abhor such an existence, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be delighted by those who find their happiness in other, more traditional aspects of life. I’ll never train dogs or shoot fish like those depicted in Happy People, nor would I even want to try, but seeing those tasks performed with such a deft, trained touch is a stark reminder that I’m lucky to be in a time and a place where typing on a computer is an acceptable (and lucrative) form of employment.