Herzog's take on a subject is always unique, because he usually brings a camera someplace very strange, like, say, Antarctica, Death Row or a French cave full of ancient paintings, and simply records what he sees, eventually cutting together an oddball view of a small part of the world. His films aren't intended to be definitive, which is something that fans of his work often appreciate. And though they're designed to spotlight something specific, Herzog's documentaries are as much about his own experiences in a place as they are about trying to present an entire picture.
That's what's so odd about his latest endeavor, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, for which he shares a directing credit with Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov. The movie—playing for one week at the Ken Cinema starting Friday, Feb. 22—follows several hunters and trappers who are based in Bakhtia, a village of 300 people deep in the Siberian Taiga. In this case, Herzog didn't actually travel to the little village, where Vasyukov and his crew spent a year lensing the residents.
As you might imagine, a barely inhabited part of Siberia is a brutal place; the villagers, who live similarly to how their ancestors did, have no electricity or doctors. They have very few trappings of modern life and make by hand almost everything they use. As I watched the men make a canoe, I couldn't help but think that I could go to REI and buy one in less time than it would take to watch the entire film. There are other disadvantages: There's no Facebook. The only twitter you hear is that of the birds. There are no craft cocktails—the only drink is locally made vodka, which Herzog calls as "vicious as jet fuel" in his commentary. There's no Genius Bar to turn to if someone in Bakhtia has an issue with an iPhone. That's OK, because there are no iPhones—in fact, no cell-phone coverage at all. And lots of mosquitoes. On the plus side, though, everything eaten is locally sourced and literally farm-to-table.
You get the idea. The Taiga is beautiful and desolate, and these trappers, sporting beards that urban hipsters can only dream about, live harmoniously with the vast wilderness around them, spending months preparing to go out on their own for weeks at a time, hoping to return with enough food to keep their families and their dogs fed. Happy People has the feel of nature films you'd find on the Discovery or National Geographic channels, except that the creatures on display here are of the same species as the creatures watching the show.
Though they live simply, it's not as if the folks in Happy People are by any definition simple. They're smart, philosophical and insightful, even though not one of them seems to have a fixedgear bike.
The cinematography is gorgeous and the subjects are fascinating, but I felt Herzog's physical absence from the film. True, he wrote and performed the narration, but the director is such a sly fox that usually, one of the most interesting facets of his films is the interactions he has with the people he meets.
It isn't that Happy People isn't interesting—it is— but it's a different experience than Herzog's other recent endeavor. In this case, the filmmaking is fairly passive, and while the trappers speak to the camera, we never see who they're speaking to. In that way, it's more of a traditional documentary, which is something we never expect from Werner Herzog.