Werner Herzog never struck me as the type of filmmaker interested in fawning hero worship, but then again former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t seem like the type of historical figure who might get some. Chalk it up to Herzog’s perpetual need to confound and take hard left turns in his career. Meeting Gorbachev isn’t the movie that you might expect it to be, but the unexpected is always what you get out of a Herzog film.
The movie opens with a surprising revelation, that Herzog is nervous to even meet Gorbachev because he worries that the fellow child of WWII might have nothing but distaste for the German people. This of course proves to be false, as does almost any assumption one might have about the Russian leader before sitting down to view Meeting Gorbachev. Through a surprisingly conventional doc profile (at least for this filmmaker; perhaps the co-directing credit with Andre Singer is somewhat revealing), Herzog slowly walks us through Gorbachev’s life. What emerges is a surprisingly sweet man with an air of tragedy hanging over his career.
We learn of Gorbachev’s stellar academic record and the great love he shared with his late wife. We learn of the crumbling Russian power structures that led to his rise to power. We see how he made every effort to modernize and improve his country, especially in terms of international relations, the way he supervised the end of the Cold War (well, the first one anyway; we’ll see how things go), how he helped bring down the Berlin Wall, and how he tried to improve the lives of his people. It’s all very impressive, which hurts even more when Gorbachev lays out how he was undermined and toppled by the Russian government that followed, which tried to have him deported and humiliated on national television. It’s tough to watch. All this paints a portrait of a good man who never quite got to finish his grand ambition of rebuilding Russia for the 21st Century.
Throughout, Herzog seems overtly smitten by his subject, whether it be through the impressive array of stock footage edited into triumphant montages or simply his playful conversational style. Some might wonder why Herzog didn’t press the Gorbachev more into denouncing the Russia that followed his leadership, or especially his thoughts on Vladimir Putin (who makes a brief and decidedly creepy cameo). Those are reasonable questions to ask of the project and could even be considered flaws.
However, Herzog wasn’t out to make a hit-piece or a condemnation of contemporary Russia. He merely wanted to profile the last leader of that country who preached unity and social progress. It’s a reminder that such things are still possible in that troubled nation despite the current horror show of an administration. Only Werner Herzog would think to make a charmingly hopeful portrait of Russia in 2018. That’s exactly why we need his voice in cinema so dearly, even through minor efforts in his catalogue like this.