Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Monday, January 27, 2014

Werner Herzog's Film, "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" (2010)

Werner Herzog didn't actually film this movie.  Instead, he watched at a friend's house four documentary films by the Russian director Dmitry Vasukov, and on the spot he decided he would re-edit, score, and do a voice-over for a single, ninety minute film. 

Herzog's narration inevitably reflects his point of view, and that point of view is decidedly romantic.  "Happy People" portrays  the down-to-earth survival of families in a small village (one is tempted to say "of three hundred souls") perched along the bank of the Yenisei River in the center of Siberia.  As Herzog tells us far too often, they are free and thus they are happy.  One almost expects a dancing chorus of fur-hatted lads and lasses, all singing some Russian version of Purcell's "Happy, happy, happy we!" 

We never see the burst appendices or the births gone wrong; we never hear about the need to get a villager immediate medical attention in a place you can get to only by helicopter or by boat (or, in winter, by snowmobile on the frozen Yenisei).  Nor do we hear anything about the loneliness experienced by the women and children during the long Siberian winters when the men are out trapping for months at a time.  And in Herzog's romanticized version of a life close to Nature, we certainly never hear about a trapper, alone but for his dog, who has injured himself while running his trap line and quickly becomes frozen as stiff as the sables he's been trapping.

Another weakness in the film is that Herzog apparently has never given any thought to the compromises that are critical to surviving this way of life.  The trappers do live close to Nature (Herzog always gives that word an emphatic "N"), but they all use outboard motors (complete with home made prop guards) to go up the river and its tributaries.  Each one has a dog, but they all cover their trap lines by snowmobile.  We never see a trapper tinkering with the snowmobile's engine, for example, but that would appear to be a skill necessary for survival.  There's a lot of whacking away with axes, building dead falls and testing a tree's grain for a new pair of skis, but we almost never see or hear a chain saw. 

Despite these weaknesses, the film is well worth watching.  There's a first-rate sequence on building a dugout canoe.  The footage on the dogs is great.  What Herzog has appropriated from Vasukov's four films documents the unceasing labor of surviving for a year in the Siberian taiga.  To every thing there is a season:  a season to lay in next winter's wood and to start a new cabin;  a season to grow vegetables; a season to stockpile pike to feed both the dogs and the villagers; a season to trap sable.  These villagers may be free from the government, as Herzog asserts, but their survival is dependent on doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.  Where does one draw the line between freedom and necessity?  My sense is that they are less "happy" than quietly proud of their skillful self-reliance.

I'm even thinking about watching it once more before returning it to Netflix.  If I do, however, I'm going to mute Herzog's narration.

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