In 'Meeting Gorbachev,' Werner Herzog meets his match in the former leader of the Soviet Union.
Werner Herzog is a purveyor of impossible dreams. He fixates on quixotic characters, whose ambitions—and their pitfalls—become the subject of his inimitable films. It would seem only natural, then, that Herzog would eventually pull one of the twentieth century's greatest tragic heroes into his orbit. But Mikhail Gorbachev, Herzog's latest documentary subject and the octogenarian former president of the Soviet Union, upends the Herzogian model. Meeting Gorbachev is, unapologetically, a hagiography. Herzog fare deals in the absurd, using dark humor to expose deeper truths than facts alone could relate. There are traces of these moments in the film—for instance, a regional newscast that only mentions the fall of the Iron Curtain as an afterthought, and instead focuses the main evening news story on slugs—but for the most part, what the director serves up instead of absurdity is genuine affection.
In a recent interview with No Film School, Herzog said this diversion in form was by design, and dictated by Gorbachev's legendary status. It's clear from the film, though, that Gorbachev himself wouldn't have had it any other way. Meeting Gorbachev opens with a sit-down interview, one of three, between the two men. "Please allow me to explain myself," says Herzog. "I am a German, and the first German that you met probably wanted to kill you." Another subject might have played along with Herzog's trademark dark humor, which refers to the tension between the USSR and Germany during World War II. But Gorbachev is not just any Herzog subject. "No," he says, and proceeds to tell a story about a family of Germans who sold delicious pastries in the Northern Caucus town where he grew up. "I thought that such wonderful sweets could only be made by good people," Gorbachev remembers fondly. Herzog has met his match.
"I've done pretty wild things in my documentaries, which are sometimes only feature films in disguise. I've taken liberties. You do not do that when you have conversations with Gorbachev."
The film traces the Gorbachev's momentous achievements, including the thaw of the Cold War and the disarmament efforts of the 1980s. Ultimately, it laments the fallout of the Soviet leader's impossible dream. Meeting Gorbachev an a portrait of a tragic hero who believed in a better world, and who tried, and failed, to save the soul of Russia.
No Film School sat down with Herzog at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss his brazen interviewing technique (which he insists is not, in fact, a technique); why the U.S. grievously misunderstands Russia; how young filmmakers are changing the game, especially on YouTube; and more. We also talk about his notion of "ecstatic truth," a term he coined to divorce his documentaries from journalism.
No Film School: Of all your films, this one made me really emotional. I cried a couple of times. I really connected with the tragic hero story.
Werner Herzog: It's pleasant for me to hear how you reacted, because, in a way, it is a political biography, but it should also illuminate the soul of a man—and even beyond that, at some fleeting moments, the soul of Russia. I'm glad that it touched you.
NFS: Gorbachev says at one point, "Our experiment with democracy in Russia was never completed." I grew up in a post-Soviet Union world. For my generation, Russia is Yeltsin, who helped stage the coup to oust Gorbachev, and, well... Putin.
Herzog: But of course, Russia has dramatically improved since Yeltsin. We should not overlook [that]. I have seen the despair and loss of dignity of the population under Yeltsin, and I have seen the times after. And I think there is confidence within the Russian people that they are retaking their dignity. So that's important to know, and to see, and to watch. And because of that, we should be very cautious about the demonization of Russia. It in my opinion is a very big mistake of the West. Vladimir Putin does not want to re-establish the Soviet Union. That's one of the distortions in the Western media. He does not want the "empire" back. I say that in quotes.
NFS: How many times did you meet with Gorbachev? I know you had about six hours of footage altogether.
Herzog: Yes. We had two meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. And then, when it was all done, he literally summoned me back. He wanted me back. He took a liking to me, in a way. He said, "We have to continue, and we have to talk! I can get out of hospital for it!” He was always coming straight from hospital when we were filming.
One time, we brought him a belated birthday present—the sugarless chocolate. In the film, that’s when he starts to recite a poem by Lermontov, which is very, very beautiful. In fact, it is so beautiful that I repeat the entire poem as a scrawl at the end [of the movie]. I had the feeling, all of a sudden, it's more than only Gorbachev—it’s the soul of Russia becoming visible.
NFS: How did your rapport with him evolve over the course of your conversations?
Herzog: I think there was no time for evolving. We just had two meetings. He knew a few of my films. His people close to him briefed him on what I was doing. And he was glad that I was not a journalist. I said, "I am a poet." And he really appreciated that.
NFS: So you prefaced your conversations with the declaration that you were an artist, and not a journalist. How do you think that changed the dynamic?
Herzog: I said, "I do not have a catalog of questions. I'm coming with empty hands." And I said to him jokingly, "You know, I'm not a journalist. I'm a poet." And he laughed, and he said, "Wonderful. I'm glad. So, let's talk about poetry." And by the way, at the very end, I tickled him with a poem by Pushkin, which I recited to him partly. I knew he would know it by heart. And I hoped he would chime in. But he waved me down and stopped me, and he said, “You know, I have a much better poem, and I’m going to recite it.” The poem by Lamontov is much more beautiful than what I had proposed.
"He was glad that I was not a journalist. I said, 'I am a poet.' And he really appreciated that."
NFS: He brought something of his own.
Herzog: He brought something much better.
NFS: There’s a big conversation in America specifically about the role of documentary, and people perceiving it as journalism—taking it at face value—rather than seeing it as an art form.
Herzog: Of course there's journalism in documentary. So what? Fine. There's nothing wrong [with] it. But documentaries should reach out much deeper and much further, and go beyond the sheer facts. And we should aim for something that illuminates us, something that is outside of facts. Facts do not illuminate you. When you have the Manhattan phone directory—four million entries, everything factually correct—it doesn't illuminate you.
We should go much deeper. I've coined the term “ecstatic truth” and it has caught on. Many young filmmakers are departing from the classic model of documentary filmmaking. They do it in their own way, but I like what I see. And we should somehow acknowledge that there is a shifting attitude, and it has to be this way. We had cinema verite, which claims verite—the truth—which is kind of presumptuous. But that was the answer of the ‘60s. That was the time of the Vietnam War. It belongs to that epoch.
We have evolved. We have to find new narrative forms, new stylistic forms, and a new approach to “truth.” I say it with great caution because nobody knows exactly what truth is. But it’s more important than ever because of fake news. Untrue things are rampant more than before.
NFS: How does your notion of ecstatic truth inform your vision of the future of the documentary form?
Herzog: I think we shouldn't go deep into that, because we would need 48 hours, and I'd have to show you clips from some of my films, and some films of my friends and colleagues. When you look at Grizzly Man for example, or when you look at Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that film ends with a postscript [featuring] mutant albino radioactive crocodiles. It's completely and utterly wild, and that's what sticks to the audience—they want to be taken into the realm of sheer poetry and imagination. That’s what I do.
NFS: This film contains some of your trademark moments of absurdity, but you do seem to regard Gorbachev, and the subject matter, with more sincerity, and sobriety, than usual. You use your “ecstatic truth” approach sparingly here.
Herzog: The content always dictates the procedure, the style, and the flow of narration. I've done pretty wild things in my previous documentaries, which sometimes are only feature films in disguise. So I've taken liberties. You do not do that when you have conversations with Gorbachev, and when it comes to very momentous political events.
NFS: You have a lot of respect for Gorbachev. That’s writ large in the film, and it’s evident from the way you talk about him now.
Herzog: It was a natural admiration. As a German, I was much closer geographically and politically to Russia than most of the Americans who are seeing the film now theatrically. But it is not difficult to respect and admire his achievements, which were monumental at the end of the last century. It’s not that I'm a fan or [something], but I have a very deep respect for him.
NFS: What surprised you, if anything, about Gorbachev or about his story?
Herzog: I think beyond the political achievements, which of course I knew, and anyone can read, it is a depth of a human being—the depth of his soul, and the depth of his country, Russia.
"Documentaries should reach out much deeper and much further, and go beyond the sheer facts. And we should aim for something that illuminates us."
NFS: You offer us a glimpse of his soul in this film. He is a natural diplomat, so I imagine it wasn’t easy to reach the truth in his heart. But I saw you do something interesting with your interviewing technique: You asked him at one point what he considers his legacy to be, and he answers in a characteristically diplomatic fashion. But then you change tacks. You ask, very bluntly, "What should be on your gravestone?” That’s when the emotional truth comes out. He says: “We tried.”
Herzog: Yes. It has nothing to do with techniques. It just came out of my heart. We were warmed up with each other in such a way that I could ask a personal question. And it didn’t come as an ambush—it came right out of the flow and the mood of the conversation.
It was the same thing when I brought up his wife. I was advised by his entourage, "Please do not bring up the untimely death of his wife Raisa, whom he loved so dearly.” I mean, she was his lover, his mother of his daughter, his closest confidante, everything he had in his life. I was asked not to address it. But somehow, we were warmed up in a way that I thought, “I should ask him.” He had no problem speaking about her. It was very, very touching to see that.
NFS: That's incredible that you were able to achieve that kind of closeness with another person in such a short amount of time.
Herzog: Yes, but that's what I do—that’s what my profession is all about. It's even more drastic when it comes, for example, to talking to people on death row who will be executed a few days later, and you have a minimum amount of time to speak. You can never meet them before or after, period. I have to establish a rapport instantly. It's not warming up. It has to be there from the first moment on.
NFS: Do you find that you have to offer a lot of yourself when you're speaking with people in these personal situations?
Herzog: That's an interesting question. It's not about bearing your soul, like when you are talking to an analyst—which I've never done in my life, by the way. But there is a demand on you. You are who you are, and you should not hide it. You have to be, in a way, declarative.
With Gorbachev, since both of us had done our homework [on each other], it was easy. He knew that I had traveled on foot before the Wall fell, and before the reunification of Germany. He, as a young man, had traveled a lot on foot in the region where he grew up. And we had a similar experience after the war. I wouldn't say it was starvation for me, but I [experienced] an understanding of hunger. We were both hungry as children, and we had no running water. So, many things were fairly similar.
NFS: The film evokes questions about the nature of progress and reform. Do you think differently about these things after having met with Gorbachev?
Herzog: Yes. Sure. But you have to step a little bit outside of the common narrative of the West. If you just take a good look at what Russia is all about today, then you probably will see—yes, there's progress. I do believe the Russian government is deeply hoping for a change in climate. And I do believe Americans are, as well.
I think the film comes at the right moment. When you look at the West—and I’m not speaking only of the United States—you hope there would be a similar situation, as we had it in the late ‘80s, under Gorbachev. The most unlikely of all protagonists, Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev—against all pundits, against all predictions—all of a sudden, connected. And they looked beyond the horizon. That's how Gorbachev describes it. Why don't we bring back the time when we looked beyond the horizon to the situation right now?
"YouTube is a low threshold into image-making."
This is not in the film, but Gorbachev told me about his last public appearance here in the United States at a college, in front of more than 10,000 young students. And he was very emotional about it. He was asked, "What would you advise Americans to do [politically]?” And he said, correctly so, "I am not here to prescribe to young Americans how they should conduct their lives and their political visions." And then he added something. He said, "The only thing that I feel might be good for America to have a Perestroika as well." He said that he has never in his life had a thunderous applause like that.
NFS: What do you see around you from young filmmakers that you admire?
Herzog: I like to see how naturally they are using the tools that they have, including their cell phones. I do not like the overuse of cell phones, but you can make narrative feature films for theaters now with your cell phone. And we have seen some good examples of that. So, it's an approach—a low-threshold approach, going straight into recording and filmmaking, and doing things that are very unusual.
When you look at YouTube, for example, most of it is garbage, but you find extraordinary gems there. That's a low threshold entering into image-making.
NFS: The barrier to entry is now lowered significantly.
Herzog: Yes. It used to be low, when I began in 35mm celluloid. So I'm coming back from prehistory moviemaking.