To put it mildly, Werner Herzog has his own take on things, so it comes as no surprise that one of the most recent projects by the prolific international director does not follow the rules of normal political biography. Over a six-month period, and without a prepared script, Herzog conducted three interviews with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that covered a multitude of topics, some of it geopolitical, much of it personal, and more than a little of it highly idiosyncratic.
That’s not to say Herzog takes his subject lightly: Gorbachev was instrumental in German reunification in the late 1980s, a subject very close to the Munich-born director’s heart, and this issue is raised in a film that covers a lot of ground, from Gorbachev’s rise in the Communist Party, to dealing with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, to negotiating with U.S. President Ronald Reagan over the nuclear arms race, and navigating the tumultuous years of Glasnost.
As the film makes its Eastern European premiere at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, Variety sat down with André Singer, Herzog’s co-director, to discuss the genesis of their extraordinary film, “Meeting Gorbachev.”
How did you get involved with this project?
A few years ago I directed a film, “Night Will Fall,” shown on MDR in Germany about filming in the camps on liberation at the end of WWII. The film was successful, so MDR invited me to devise a new film with them. After lengthy discussions we agreed that were we able to get access to Mikhail Gorbachev, the story of this legendary giant of the 1980s and ’90s would make fascinating viewing.
What kind of negotiations did you enter into to get Gorbachev’s co-operation?
Access to Gorbachev was complicated by the fact that he was – and is – in ill-health, and was further complicated by on-going negotiations he was holding about a possible feature film with a Hollywood studio. Visiting his institute in Moscow [The Gorbachev Foundation] and talking to his closest advisors was an important prerequisite to getting the team in Moscow to agree that we were sincere in our ambitions and, in particular, that we wanted to approach the access to Gorbachev differently. That this would not be a political biography but an attempt to get to understand Gorbachev as a human-being with personal likes and dislikes. More of an emotional portrait than a comprehensive history.
When did Werner come on board as the interviewer, and why was he the right choice?
It was at this point that I brought my long-standing relationship with Werner into play. I knew that if I was to co-direct with Werner and have him conduct the central interviews with Gorbachev, we would achieve a different and original perspective. Werner was keen to join me, and Gorbachev was happy with the idea.
How did you approach the shoot?
We decided that the interviews in Moscow with Gorbachev – there were three of them over a six-month period – would be conducted by Werner with him asking questions in English and Gorbachev answering in Russian with his phenomenally experienced interpreter Pavel Palazchenko simultaneously translating for both in the next room, with me able to feed occasional questions through the intercom. Other location shooting and interviews were conducted by me, in the U.S. with George Shultz and James Baker; and then with Lech Walesa and Miklos Nemeth. Werner then conducted the final interview in Germany with Horst Teltschik, the Security Advisor to Helmut Kohl. But the key to the film lies in the three central interviews with Gorbachev, which determined what archive and what supporting material we should chase.
What kind of approach did you take to the interviews themselves?
Because we know that these interviews were to form the backbone of the film, we decided to conduct them in a relatively formal atmosphere in Gorbachev’s institute office, which gave us command of the lighting, sound and enabled us to use three cameras on the two protagonists. In the event, the third interview was across the desk in a nearby office. The essential quality we wanted from the interview was of two intelligent and concerned men engaged in discussion – not a formal Q&A. Gorbachev never asked for questions in advance and was happy to enter into any area of questioning Werner wished to take.
Did Werner – or indeed Gorbachev – ever surprise you?
Everything was a surprise. From the relaxed and congenial atmosphere, to the ability to tackle such emotional topics as the death of Gorbachev’s wife Raisa, and what he might like to see on his gravestone – “We tried” was his answer. Werner had a clear liking for his interviewee, which was reciprocated.
How do you structure a film like this? Was anything pre-planned?
Yes. I had a carefully researched structure and we had bucket-loads of facts, details and potential trails to follow. In the end, most of that was abandoned and the direction of the film followed the path that the discussion between the two men led us. To give an example, Miklos Nemeth told us about the cutting of the barbed wire between Austria and Hungary and how they had to re-erect a section of the fence because by the time the news crews arrived the fence had already been dismantled.
Tongue in cheek, Werner remembered that the cutting of the barbed wire wasn’t even headline news at the time. So we went back into the archives and found that indeed, on the night of the famous fence-cutting, the main item on the Austrian news was about how to cope with slugs and snails in your garden. The irony that such a momentous piece of history should follow an item about snails led us to include the news item in the film. What I regard as a typical “Herzogian” approach to film!
Did you always get what you wanted, and were any topics skirted?
I would have liked a more barbed approach to contemporary Russian and global politics – for example, his relationship with Putin, his views on Trump, etc. – but tackling this would have been unfair on a somewhat fragile and lonely figure trying to survive in a Moscow that clearly doesn’t really either appreciate or like the path he took with the old USSR.
Has Gorbachev seen the film yet?
I am going to Moscow on November 8 to show him the film and to gauge his reaction. I know that close members of his Foundation are delighted with it, and I sincerely hope this will apply to him too.
What do you think the film reveals about him?
I believe we too rarely glimpse the real person behind the politician. Gorbachev, whether in tune with his political and social ambitions or not, was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. Preeminent in ending the Cold War was a momentous achievement that shouldn’t be forgotten. Yet I fear this generation has already brushed his role under a carpet and importantly have never really got to grips with the man behind the politics of his era. I feel strongly that the most important thing about the film is that it “humanizes” him. I found him a warm, genuine, generous man who has been neglected by history and in his current rather sad position isolated in Moscow deserves to be heard and remembered. If the film helps achieve that, I would be a happy man!