A new Werner Herzog flick makes Judge Clark Douglas a happy person.
An epic journey into the heart of the Siberian wilderness.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is the latest film from German auteur Werner Herzog, but it isn't a Herzog film in the traditional sense. While Herzog has carried boats over mountains, braved ferocious jungles, camped out in Antarctica and traveled to volcanic islands for the sake of his art, this time around he relies on someone else to do the grunt work. A few years ago, Herzog came across a series of documentaries directed by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov that offered an in-depth look at the lives of Siberian hunters living in the quiet village of Bakhta. Herzog received Vasyukov's blessing to make a new edit of the documentaries; cutting the footage down to an audience-friendly ninety minutes and putting his own distinctive spin on the material. The end result is a genuinely riveting film brought to life by the hard work of one director and the poetic vision of another.
Of course, Herzog has done this sort of thing before to some extent. His strange, hypnotizing science fiction film The Wild Blue Yonder relied heavily on ethereal footage of Antarctica he received from composer Henry Kaiser, and his acclaimed Grizzly Man is primarily built on remarkable footage shot by its central subject. However, in those films (and others like them), Herzog has contributed his own unique footage. This time around, his narration and editing choices are the only new additions to the pre-existing material. You might think that this would lead to a film that feels like Herzog lite, but no, Happy People is very much of a piece with the rest of the director's filmography.
Here is a documentary that feels like it was ripped from the pages of a Jack London novel: a hearty, funny, romantic, tragic tale of men doing battle with the elements. Though the people represented in the film do indeed face some serious hardships (one all-too-brief sequence highlights the rampant alcoholism in the area), the title isn't meant ironically: here are people who have largely found peace in their honest, simple existence. The Siberian wilderness they live in is a land of extremes—punishing winters are balanced by summers that offer 20 hours of sunlight—but these people seem to find contentment in the basic act of survival. At least, that's Herzog's point of view: as ever, he has boundless admiration for the bold people willing to stand up to nature's challenges. It's worth noting, however, that this time around Herzog seems to have toned down his memorably cynical view of nature itself.
The film's central figure is a gruff, bearded hunter with a philosophical streak: he waxes eloquent about the fact that all creatures are essentially killers, but then determines that he can live with that fact since he takes the "honest" approach of hunting for his food ("Unlike farmers, who raise animals for the purpose of slaughtering them"). The man is plainspoken and tough, but he turns sentimental when speaking about his beloved dogs. He offers one lengthy monologue detailing the time one of his favorite dogs fought a losing battle with a bear. It's a heartbreaking tale, and I've witnessed few things as moving as the sight of this grizzled hunter trying to maintain his composure as he tells it.
Herzog's own narration is as contemplative and elegant as ever, and he demonstrates a great deal of wisdom in determining when he should chime in. He's all but absent during the film's most powerful sequences, as he realizes that much of what's on display is strong enough to stand on its own without his introduction. Still, he does deliver a number of excellent additions, such as a scene in which he offers droll commentary on a cornball politician's visit to the village. Though one suspects that Herzog might have pushed his interview subjects a little more had he been the one collecting the footage, it's remarkable how well Vasyukov's sensibilities align with Herzog's own. One suspects that the only reason Herzog himself didn't travel to Siberia to make the film is that Vasyukov thought of it first. Without having seen the full documentary in its original form, it's hard to say how much Herzog might have adjusted the tone. Regardless, it's clear that both men have played a large role in providing us with a great movie.
The standard-def transfer is merely okay, perhaps due to the fact that a substantial supply of bonus features are stuffed onto the disc alongside the film. Detail is decent, but this is a film that begs for a hi-def release. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is strong, highlighting an excellent new score from composer Klaus Badelt (who seems to step up his game every time he works with Herzog). The extras include a 6-minute introduction from Herzog, an additional 73-minute Siberia-themed nature documentary, a segment from the original version of the film, and some text fact on Siberia.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a tremendous achievement. My sincere thanks to Mr. Vasyukov for his commendable work in gathering this footage and to Mr. Herzog for turning it into such a compelling film. Highly recommended.
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