×

Film Review: ‘Meeting Gorbachev’

The warmth of Herzog's regard for Gorbachev comes ingratiatingly across, but also blunts the edges of this surprisingly gentle documentary.

Director:
Werner Herzog, André Singer
With:
Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog, Miklós Németh, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Lech Walesa, Horst Teltschik. (Russian, German, English dialogue)

1 hour 31 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Meeting Gorbachev'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 11, 2018. (Also in Telluride Film Festival.) Running Time: 91 MIN.

Production: (U.K.-U.S.-Germany — Documentary) A Spring Films, Werner Herzog Film production. (Int'l sales: A&E Networks, New York.) Producers: Lucki Stipetic, Svetlana Palmer. Executive producers: Richard Melman, Molly Thompson, Eli Lehrer.

Crew: Directors, writers: Werner Herzog, André Singer. Camera (Color, widescreen): Richard Blanshard, Yuri Barak. Editor: Michael Ellis. Music: Nicholas Singer.

With: Mikhail Gorbachev, Werner Herzog, Miklós Németh, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Lech Walesa, Horst Teltschik. (Russian, German, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content