VOD film review: Meeting Gorbachev
Matthew Turner | On 08, Nov 2019
Directors: Werner Herzog, Andre Singer
Cast: Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog, Miklós Németh, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Lech Walesa, Horst Teltschik
Watch Meeting Gorbachev online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Google Play / Sky Store
Co-directed by Werner Herzog and his frequent collaborator Andre Singer, this engaging documentary explores the life and career of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union. The result is a fascinating account of Gorbachev’s historical achievements, but it’s frustratingly light on contemporary insight.
Narrated by Herzog in his distinctive tone, the majority of the film is drawn from three lengthy interviews between Werner and Gorbachev, interspersed with archive material and talking head contributions. Beginning with Gorbachev’s early life, Herzog charts his progression through the ranks of the Communist Party, including extraordinary details such as the fact that Gorbachev literally walked from village to village to ensure that modern farming methods were adopted throughout the country.
The film touches upon Gorbachev’s remarkable achievements, including his part in ending the Cold War, granting independence to Eastern Bloc countries that had previously been under Soviet control, and the reunification of Germany, a subject that’s evidently close to Herzog’s heart. Furthermore, the film celebrates the fact that Gorbachev was able to achieve close working relationships with both Reagan and Thatcher, although anyone hoping for a juicy aside from Gorbachev on either is destined for disappointment.
Herzog makes strong use of archive material, particularly when cycling through the brief tenures of Andropov and Chernenko in the post-Brezhnev era before Gorbachev became leader. The sequences of Gorbachev visiting his home town (actually a tiny farming village) are also extremely moving.
On top of that, Herzog has assembled an impressive collection of interviewee that includes former Secretary of State George Shultz (98 years old and still going strong), as well as Horst Teltschik (national security advisor to German Chancellor Helmut) and Polish leader Lech Walesa.
Perhaps its due to translation issues (Gorbachev wears an earpiece so his answers are always delayed), but Herzog never quite connects with him. For one thing, their interview gets off to a supremely awkward start, with Herzog apologising to Gorbachev because “the first Germans you saw probably wanted to kill you” and Gorbachev quickly correcting him by telling him about the kindly biscuit-making Germans that were his father’s friends and neighbours.
Elsewhere, Gorbachev refuses to be drawn on certain issues, most notably on Helmut Kohl. Herzog evidently adores his subject – he even tells him he loves him – but doesn’t get quite the same warmth in return, even when presenting him with a gift of sugar-free chocolate (Gorbachev is diabetic). It’s not that Gorbachev is hostile, only that he remains frustratingly diplomatic (particularly on Putin and the current state of world politics) and the sense of easy conversation never really comes through.
That said, the film becomes powerfully emotional in the closing section where Herzog asks Gorbachev about his beloved wife, Raisa, who passed away 20 years ago. Gorbachev’s account of their courtship and the footage of him weeping at her funeral (also, the film’s only acknowledgement of Putin) are extremely moving, as are his comments about how much he misses her.