Herzog meets Gorbachev, or should that be the other way round, in an encounter that on paper should be one for the ages: Werner Herzog, the incisive documentarian (here in tandem with frequent co-director André Singer), engaged in a meeting of minds with as robust a subject as Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, architect of Perestroika and Glasnost and the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union. But the interview, which happened over three shorter sessions and is interspersed with standard archive footage and a few other talking heads, finds Herzog on unusually obsequious, almost fanboyish form, his (very natural) admiration for Gorbachev dulling the edge of his more eccentric instincts.
To be fair, the great German filmmaker tries to bend the encounter to his will, but he’s almost immediately shut down by Gorbachev who is having none of his Herzogian shenanigans and proves consistently resistant (though genially so) to Herzog’s efforts to inject poetry and tragic irony and pathetic fallacy into the narrative of his life. Even his opening gambit is to politely but flatly refute Herzog’s mournful assertion that “the first German you ever saw wanted to kill you” with a story about the delightful biscuit-making Germans whom he encountered before the war.
Herzog doesn’t really ever recover anything like equal standing, and, coupled with the translation issue which means the spontaneous interruptions and reactions of natural conversation can’t occur, his time actually meeting Gorbachev in “Meeting Gorbachev” is mostly organized as a series of very brief questions prompting (sometimes unrelated but always fascinating) long monologue answers. Gorbachev, though he looks unwell and a little unlike the figure so etched into the historical memory of anyone alive in the ’80s and ’90s, is a consummate and brilliant politician even now, and he is practiced in the art of saying only what he wants to. Thankfully, even without much modern-day context (Putin is rarely mentioned, and the contemporary consequences of the end of the USSR are only broached in general terms) there’s more than enough in what he wants to say to keep us attentive.
There are a few flourishes outside the bland, shot-reverse-shot interview footage itself. Crows wheeling through the sky and a weirdly jerky drone shot, as well as Herzog’s unmistakably lugubrious, Golem-like voiceover taking us through Gorbachev’s early years do occasionally remind us who’s nominally in charge here. And the other interviewees, such as Horst Teltschik, former national security adviser to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the reunification period, and former Polish president Lech Wałęsa are less constrained by admiration and thus more able to give the otherwise cozy affair a little edge.
Wałęsa especially touches on the real sticking point of Gorbachev’s legacy (and the difference in how it is perceived in Eastern versus Western Europe) when he implies that his idealism made him (usefully) shortsighted: “Communism cannot be reformed, only dismantled” says Wałęsa, going on to describe how he and the Polish independence movement supported Gorbachev’s reforms because they knew they would actually mean the end of the Soviet Union — an outcome Gorbachev explicitly did not want, and which he still regards as his great regret.
But while this is fascinating and fertile territory to explore, Herzog prefers a gentler tack more often asking how such-and-such made Gorbachev feel, rather than how it affected his thinking (for a more analytical and more urgent approach to Gorbachev’s legacy, particularly with regard to the great de-escalator’s views on the recently resurgent nuclear threat, seek out Leila Conners’ 2017 documentary “The Arrow of Time,” in which he also participates). Herzog’s softer approach does yield some touching material, especially concerning Gorbachev’s wife Raisa, whom he still misses intensely (“her perfume, her voice, the laughter”), but it can also feel like a bit of an indulgence, like in the section where he giddily presents Gorbachev with a hamper full of specially commissioned sugar-free chocolate (Gorbachev, in failing health for a variety of reasons, is also diabetic).
His admiration for this towering figure of late-20th-century history is understandable, and he conducts the interview a little the way you think you might, if you had a few hours’ face time with Gorbachev, mostly content to sit at his knee and listen to him speak without too much direct challenge. But that is itself disappointing: Herzog miscasting himself in the role of the everyman interlocutor. We might have hoped for a more sparky encounter, but “Meeting Gorbachev,” though consistently engaging, is less a fireworks display than a fireside chat, and so feels curiously like an opportunity missed.