Review: ‘Happy People: A Year in the Taiga’

A mesmerizing "Walden"-like ode to wilderness life.

Continuing his romance with extreme conditions and remote locations, Werner Herzog steps in to overhaul Russian director Dmitry Vasyukov’s “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” condensing the four-hour, made-for-TV documentary portrait of Siberian fur trappers into a mesmerizing “Walden”-like ode to wilderness life. As in “Grizzy Man,” Herzog plays magpie with another filmmaker’s footage, ruminating throughout on man’s relationship to nature — only in this case, these self-reliant subjects possess no delusions about their surroundings (they know how to handle a bear attack). Herzog’s efforts should expand the project’s reach to the West, if only on TV in most territories.

Covering a year in the life of several Bakhta-based hunters, “Happy People” progresses methodically through the seasons. Scenes of everyday survival constitute most of the film, from pike fishing to building cabins and hand-crafting skis, with Herzog cherry-picking the program’s most captivating moments (including nearly everything to do with the hunters’ loyal dogs). What little dialogue remains has been rather awkwardly dubbed into English, though Herzog’s philosophical narration — enchanted by this outpost free from phones, taxes and all the trappings of modern life — elevates “Happy People” above most nature docs.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga

Germany

Production

A Studio Babelsberg production. (International sales: Studio Babelsberg, Potsdam, Germany.) Produced by Charlie Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Nick Raslan, Vladimir Perepelkin. Executive producers, Werner Herzog, Yanko Damboulev, Timur Bekmambetov, Klaus Badelt. Co-producer, Thomas Nickel. Directed by Dmitry Vasyukov. Screenplay, Werner Herzog, Vasyukov, Rudolph Herzog.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Alexey Matveev, Gleb Stepanov, Arthur Sibirski, Michael Tarkovsky; editors, Maxim Perepelkin, Dmitry Vasyukov, Alexey Stanevich, Joe Bini; music, Klaus Badelt. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 4, 2010. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Narrator: Werner Herzog. (English dialogue)

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