Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Directed by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog
Herzog documentaries, if not quite his recent fictional films, have taken on the esteem reserved for an artist who's been consistent over the decades, like Woody Allen. Discerning audiences are confident that even the most minor efforts will still be fundamentally Woody, or fundamentally Werner.
But for every instant classic like Into the Abyss or The White Diamond there are lesser efforts like Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Encounters at the End of the World that are a bit slight, almost like they belong on the Discovery Channel instead of in a multiplex.
Herzog's eccentric philosophical narration is the lone selling point of those films and, at times, he almost appears to be indulging in self-parody. Happy People isn't one of those movies. The reason why: Herzog distilled this 94-minute film from Dmitry Vasyukov's four-hour epic made for Russian television. This allows Herzog to pick and choose the richest moments of Herzog-ian peculiarity.
The bulk of the film follows a fur trapper along the Yenisei River in the Siberian Taiga. This long-bearded man's man is straight out of the pages of naturalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau. He lives almost completely without the aid of modern convenience, the lone exception being his rinky-dink snowmobile.
Let's forgive him this, as he has to travel hundreds of kilometres just to prepare his many fur traps. At least 15 minutes focus on this trapper building a set of skis. He chooses a particular type of tree, cuts it a certain way and then heats the wood over just the right type of fire. He goes through a similar process to carve his canoe, establish his base camp and build and stock huts close to each trap. The pride he takes from these efforts reinforces how much profound joy there is in simple subsistence living, when done right.
Herzog's also quite fond of the trapper's dogs. He's fascinated by how little food the trapper feeds a dog in the morning, even though the trapper has a bond with his dog that would make the most fawning dog park weirdo seem downright abusive by comparison. The trapper claims that in lean winters it was a loyal dog that fed him; it's fascinating to watch the trapper collaborate with a dog to rustle out and kill small game.
One strange element is that the dubbing of the Taiga's people has been done by American-sounding voices. They sound like they just finished attending a Tupperware party, circa 1976, or like Darrin and his boss on Bewitched. You know, yuppies.
Alcoholism is the bane of the Taiga's few remaining indigenous people, who earn what little money they can by chopping up driftwood. One scene involving these people will stand alongside Stroszek's dancing chicken, Fitzcarraldo's effort to haul a boat over a mountain and all the other grand moments of the Herzog canon.
We meet a middle-aged indigenous man. He explains how significant Totemistic dolls are to his culture. We meet his "kept woman" (more like a grandmother) for about 20 seconds, as she proudly shows the dolls said to possess protective spirits. Cut to a fire. The man has burned their house down via that old straw that breaks the backs of drunks everywhere – the un-extinguished cigarette butt.
You have to imagine in the four-hour film this story was fleshed out and the fire afforded the requisite weight. Herzog cramming the tragedy into less than two minutes makes it deeply penetrating. Life can be cruel and rarely does a film pound this point home so economically.
The drunk's lament is not for his home and possessions, incidentally, but for his dolls.
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