“It is hard to imagine that from such a godforsaken place in the middle of nowhere, one of the great leaders of the 20th century emerged.” Werner Herzog says near the beginning of his latest documentary, Meeting Gorbachev.
His is a story of a boy who went from being born and raised on a farm to leader of the USSR. For most of Meeting Gorbachev, Herzog and the former leader of the Soviet Union sit down for a tête-à-tête, man to man conversation as the director says.
Gorbachev will be remembered as the man in charge of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War and Herzog is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. Watching the 90-minute documentary, we see the two warm to each other as Herzog traces the rise of Gorbachev.
Read my chat with Herzog below. Meeting Gorbachev is on limited release.
Why Gorbachev, and how did this project come your way?
It didn’t originate with me. Andre Singer was contemplating various projects with German TV stations but nothing happened there. They proposed doing something on Mikhail Gorbachev so the project had already started without me. Contact had been made with him and at that point, Andre Singer asked me to step in and to do the conversation. I said yes immediately because it sounded so interesting. I like Mikhail Gorbachev a lot because of his role in German Reunification, but there were other things about him that I liked so I stepped deeper and deeper into the film.
How do you approach interviewing someone like Gorbachev and someone who can both be seen as a hero to some and a villain to others?
I did my homework. I read his memoirs and read biographies written by Western writers. I read Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman. That was a really fascinating biography. I read documents and transcripts from the Supreme Soviet that exist. I did a lot. I was prepared but I didn’t approach him with a catalog of questions. It was a free conversation not interviews.
Gorbachev had also done his research and had a stack of papers about the research he had done. He wanted to discuss my childhood which was similar to his. I said, “Mikhail Sergeyevich, let’s not waste time and let’s roll.” He laughed and hinted at how much he knew about my work.
We see that he’s a bit guarded when you’re talking about some areas. Was he easy to converse with?
He was absolutely open from man to man so to speak. I always had the feeling and it was hinted at by his entourage that he would probably never speak to media ever again.
One thing that was interesting to see was his relationship with Thatcher and then you cut to the footage of the two of them. Talk about delving into that footage?
Andre Singer and his team was responsible for that. It’s the competency of the team in London and Moscow. I had read in Taubman’s book that there was a moment where Brezhnev fumbled an awards ceremony for Gorbachev and I asked the team if there was any footage of this. They found a microphone recording from the ceremony where you can hear how Brezhnev doesn’t even know why he’s awarding Gorbachev and Gorbachev slips in the missing word, “Canal”
I remember being in Vienna and I was watching the Evening News and it’s when the Iron curtain was being lifted and the anchorwoman on the news was talking about how to lure slugs in your garden with beer because slugs love beer so you could kill them off. Only does she briefly talk about the lifting of the iron curtain and I asked them to find it.
That’s so great. I do love that scene when you see a shift and he lifts his guard when he’s talking about Raisa.
I had hints to either not address it or approach it with great caution. In the course of our conversation, we had warmed up so much and I had a feeling that we should ask him about his wife and I thought why not? She’s so important and such a big part of his life. She was his closest political adviser. She was the great love of his life. She died way too early. I asked him how much he missed her and that’s one of the most intense moments in the film. He looks at me and there’s this long silence. Then he says, “When Raisa died, my life was taken from me.” He stays silent and he lifts his arms a bit and the silence is so powerful.
It’s such a striking moment. Did anything about him catch you off guard?
I had done so much research and homework that I wasn’t off guard. I didn’t expect to encounter a man with such a deep soul. He’s very Russian in that way.
There’s a fleeting moment towards the end where he recites a moment and it’s as if we’re catching a glimpse into the soul of his country and Russia.
It was such a beautiful moment to watch.
It was triggered. I knew at the end, I’d tickle him by reciting a poem by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. I knew he’d chime in because he knows hundreds of poems and so I recited Pushkin to him and he stopped me. He said, “I have something much better.” He recites the poem by Lermontov which is much better than the one I proposed reciting together.
What’s the general reaction been towards the film?
The film screened at LACMA the other night and at the end, there was a long-lasting ovation. I told the audience that I’d tell Gorbachev the reaction and everyone stood up and applauded him, not the film. I wrote an email to him and sent it to him after I got back to the hotel.
People of all ages admire your work and you have your renowned masterclass. Do you have advice for those who want to pick up a camera?
[laughs] They have to watch the masterclass. They have to read 600 pages and A Guide For the Perplexed.
What you do watch and what are some films that have stood out for you in recent times?
I haven’t seen films. I hardly ever watch them. I watch 3-5 films a year. I read. I read a lot. There’s hardly a night where I do not fall asleep and not have a book falling on my chest.
For filmmakers, one of the best pieces of advice would be to read. Read. Read! Read a lot. Read The Peregrine by J.A Baker. It’s one of the finest books ever published in the history of books.
Pick up Gorbachev’s memoirs and the book by Taubman. It’s so well researched.