Based on three in-depth conversations with the former President of the Soviet Union, Meeting Gorbachev (2019) is the latest documentary from Werner Herzog. How does ‘ecstatic truth’ fare when contending with the complexities of Mikhail Gorbachev’s troubled legacy?
We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.– Erving Goffman
All is performance, all are actors. Erving Goffman told us so in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), but it was the documentarians of the 1960s that showed in ways never before seen, how that theory applied. The figures at the heart Primary (John F Kennedy), With Love from Truman (Truman Capote) and Don’t Look Back (Bob Dylan) are filmed or interviewed at a moment of crisis and we – filmmakers and audiences alike – wait patiently for the mask to slip.
So when we see a Kennedy take a breath to re-compose on camera, there is real pleasure in travelling to Camelot to then uncover the Holy Grail of ‘seeing through the act’. Uncovering said Grail is difficult. The same techniques that reveal can obscure if used incorrectly. Take the a critical moment in Meeting Gorbachev (2019) where co-director and lead interviewer Werner Herzog causes ex-Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to reaffix his player’s mask all the more firmly. In a film salted with expert talking heads and excellent archive footage, but with the interview as its core ingredient, this ultimately poisons the mix.
The jowlier, padded, none-too-well Gorbachev we meet here is certainly lacking his earlier polish (In the 80s, part of his package always involved being a sweeter sight than the Andropovs or Brehznevs who preceded him) but the edge remains. Gorbachev’s assessment of the immediate post-Cold War atmosphere – and the roots of America’s long, slow betrayal of his administration in favour of Yeltsin – adds pith and poignancy to the film’s narrative as we take hold of the ethics and worldview that drove him:
‘Americans thought they’d won the cold war. And this went to their heads [pause] What victory? [pause] It was our joint victory. We all won!’
We are thankful for this steelier edge because Herzog himself, the eater of shoes, the taker of the ‘not a significant bullet’, chronicler of devoured American naturalists and erstwhile movie star brings almost none of his own. Herzog’s best work in this film comes when he provides Gorbachev with space to ruminate, pause, work slowly through the archive in his head so that his rather epigrammatic way of thinking can emerge.
And then, our fluffy, star struck, chocolate-bearing Uncle Werner Has to go and ask; ‘How much do you miss her?’
He is speaking of course, of Gorbachev’s late wife Raisa. It follows earlier probing that elicits real warmth and pathos, but it steps too far, reversing the previous state of interpersonal Glasnost between interviewer and subject. Gorbachev touches his ear, and the pause is qualitatively different. He looks to the floor. His demeanour is for the first time one that fends off rather than invites in. A compressed tableau of Post-Soviet Russia, played out microcosmically, in microseconds.
Why does Herzog do this? Why derail the entire, fragile armature of his film? We’d understand a rookie interview over-reaching in this way. Yet Herzog is nothing if not highly experienced – we know from earlier works such as the Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974), God’s Angry Man (1981), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) Grizzly Man (2005), Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and even Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) how well he can coax a subject into extraordinary, often surreal moments of candour. The problem is that the filmmaker Werner Herzog has transcended his humbler origins and is now starring in an extended run as Werner Herzog, everyone’s favourite eccentric media uncle.
Another problem is, to be fair documentary’s true nature – less Lenin’s ‘radical as reality’ as a carefully, often beautifully constructed shadow play. When ‘classic’ films such as Don’t Look Back purport to uncover the ‘public mask’ – or to use the Latin, persona – they actually serve to reinforce them. What does DA Oennebaker show us about Bob Dylan other than confirming that retaining his mask is critical to his ability to be Bob Dylan? We do not so much see beneath the disguise so much as understand better why it is worn. Put another eway, documentary offers a beguiling, entirely paradoxical fiction of life ‘captured in the raw’ even as we are engrossed in how the subjects of these films and programmes act for the camera.
Documentaries are in short, absurd (especially if they’re any good). At the heart of this absurdism is the process of creating a character from unscripted events where we, as Goffman has it, carefully perform the part of us. The masks we put up as part of this play emphasise and abstract the distinguishing marks that we recognise as our character. And documentarians are generally content to capture this over breaking a subject down entirely. To do otherwise seems indecent and, If we truly are all of us actors watching our peers onstage, then as professionals we surely have the nous to guess what lies beneath.
The quest to uncover character can however, vary greatly in its success. Herzog fails in the ‘Raisa question’ but the result is better when he asks Gorbachev to consider what should be engraved on his own tombstone. The response is both telling and teasing…
‘I don’t have an inscription of my own. [Pause] But I will tell you what I read on a friend’s gravestone. [Pause]. It stayed etched in my mind. ‘We Tried’.
…the mask stays fixed, but we do at least get to see its shape and how Gorbachev deploys it. He remains the epigrammatic, quotable, mythic statesman who plugged the hole in Chernobyl, collapsed the Berlin Wall and took Reagan’s hand and ended the first nuclear age. The man willing to be hated by everyone in service of what was right. Whether through design or inadequacy, Herzog reinforces a powerful narrative – one we perhaps find very attractive in the era of Putin’s global dominance. But there is so little examination of any counter-narratives, it feels as if a golden opportunity has been wasted.
And that brings us to the real problem with Meeting Gorbachev. Shockingly crass questions are a defect that can be covered by other assets. But the bland aesthetic and formal choices Herzog and Singer make in this film cossets its audience in the surrounding warmth of the Gorbachev myth.
Because if there is single a word that describes this film, it is cosy. Its mise-en-scene of cosy chairs and nostalgic sub-Frost Nixon interview setups feels very safe. Its narrative fabric of talking heads from colleagues and opponents and well-crafted archival montages are serviceably, satisfactorily… cosy. A format that might be staid for Newsnight never mind the celebrated wrangler of ‘the ecstatic truth’ feels mismatched when applied to a subject who never sat cosily, whether as head of the Politburo, or as literal hostage to his own hardline element.
It is hard not to compare the deference of Meeting Gorbachev with films such as Errol Morris’ Fog of War (2003), in which former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara faces the ‘interrotron’, a camera-rig that lets the audience look directly into the subject’s eyes (whites and all). In its stripped back, close and forensic aesthetic the film’s particular form of documentary shadowplay fools us into acting as McNamara’s confessor. The choice of whether or not to absolve, remaining, importantly, with us. Even the recent (and delightful) Bros: When the Screaming Stops (2018) deploys greater formal and discursive flair in dispensing its frothy protagonists than Herzog, who chooses to turn Gorbachev’s substance into very stolid fare. And to cap it all, we find at every turn, the filmmaker obscuring our line of sight. We feel as if our main function is not to meet Gorbachev but to witness Herzog do so Gorbachev is at least,used to compromising with movie stars. We however, have to crane our necks to see past Herzog’s shoulder. Even when rewarded with a glimpse, we wonder exactly what we just missed.
A much more satisfying documentary insight into the making of Gorbachev the man is provided by Chernobyl (HBO/Sky Atlantic, 2019), a painstaking docu-drama which makes its own glosses on historical fact, but certainly feels more revealing of the early days of his premiership. In a crucial scene in Episode 2, the main character Legasov explains the scale of the nuclear meltdown in Pripyat. As Legasov ruefully shoots down every comforting misapprehension that governs the USSR’s nuclear programme, we see the Gorbachev of history in chrysalis, chafing petulantly against the membrane. Emblematic of the system itself he struggles, vacillates and acts all too late. Our next in absentia encounter with this Gorbachev comes in the final episode of the miniseries. Here it becomes a courtroom drama, re-enacting the very last old school Soviet show trial. As ordered by Gorbachev, it is a crucible for immolating the three mid-level mediocrities who ran Chernobyl into meltdown. His last act in Chernobyl, is to distract and to scapegoat..
That Gorbachev emerged from such origins prepared to – as one wag put it at the time – ‘try and make a bowl of goldfish out of fish soup’ – is miraculous. It is hard not to be amazed and even religiously enthused at the transformation, but it is surely one of the central failures of this film that this central truth remains shrouded in quasi-religious mystery. It is an absurdity that Herzog should be all over as interviewer and artist. But here he is, Mr Ecstatic Truth faced with a man who was at the centre of so many critical movements. A centrifuge, if you will…
…and if you think you can sit cosy on a centrifuge…
It comes down again, to the problem of Herzog himself, not being the man he was, but now is. As the great chronicler of the marginal and eccentric he is peerless. Herzog’s own myth can drag Christian Bale (and an openly hostile Hollywood crew) into a jungle a la Fitzcarraldo, survive bullets, resurrect Nicholas Cage in the mucky waters of New Orleans, uncover the Loch Ness Monster and be inserted into Star Wars and still remain intact.
But what works well interloping between margin and mainstream falters when engaged with the actual, substantial centre of events. And Gorbachev is nothing if not that – a human centrifuge who made the world what it currently is. The apparatchik who turned into a statesman, and then into a martyr in service of general humanitarian progress is a myth both more profound and sincere than Herzog’s (entertaining) picaresque. With his hands full just being himself, is it so surprising if Herzog fails to ride the spin?
Meeting Gorbachev (dir. Werner Herzog, 2019) is currently in cinemas and available (for sale or rent) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOYGWzjIrTs