New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Meeting Gorbachev

Werner Herzog’s documentary is a love note to a historical giant, also explaining how Mikhail Gorbachev became a monumentally tragic figure who has been tossed onto the trash heap of history in his own country.  Herzog, along with co-director André Singer, conducted three interviews with the 87 year old Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. As opposed to some of his other works (Into the Abyss, Lo and Behold) where he points a finger and uncovers injustice, his reverence for his subject is clearly in evidence. Herzog develops an easy, open relationship with Gorbachev which allows him to ask intimate questions beyond the nuts and bolts of history. It’s always a pleasure to watch Herzog at work as an interviewer, with his lilting German accent, sparkling eyes and rapt attention. (Playing at the Music Box Theatre Friday and Saturday night, May 10th and 11, with Director Werner Herzog in attendance for Q & A.)

This film takes us through the huge arc of Gorbachev’s life. Born in 1931 in the rural Russian village Privolnoye, his family endured starvation before Nazi occupation. Herzog describes this as a godforsaken place. Gorbachev’s father was sent to the front and was wrongly reported killed in action. Gorbachev’s recounting of the amazing surprise when his father returned home speaks to his reverence for life.

After the war, he worked with his father harvesting wheat in the fields. They became experts running the harvesting combine machines and were even awarded medals for their work. Gorbachev was an excellent student who gained attention of Communist party bosses for his work with the Soviet youth league, Komsomol. Granted entrance to Moscow State University, the best school in the country, Gorbachev found a love of politics and for Raisa, the love of his life and wife of 46 years. 

The film shows how he followed family members into the Communist Party and quickly rose through the ranks. Dispatched to the capital of his home region, Stavropol, he proved himself by having a real interest in people instead of lining his own pockets. He modernized the local economy and gained a following. Herzog points out that Gorbachev came from a humble beginning and rose through hard work and talent. It’s almost like living the American Dream, but in an alternate universe.

Herzog’s talents as a documentarian are most evident in the sequence about the Soviet leadership and the convulsive changes between 1982 – 1985. In quick succession, three of the corrupt, Old Guard Communist Party secretaries died. 

First was Leonid Brezhnev who became so old and feeble, he couldn’t even raise his hand to wave. Then his successor, Yuri Andropov 15 months later and finally Konstantin Chernenko 13 months after that. Herzog takes some morbid delight in showing archival footage of Chernenko. He reveals how aids were propping him up to make it look like he could still stand on his own. 

During this time, it was an accepted ritual that the next in line to rule the Soviet Union was the political leader designated to receive the mourners at the elaborate state funerals. It was like seeing The Death of Stalin on replay without the comedy. Gorbachev moved up in the line of mourners until he took the reins of power at 54. Once in charge, Gorbachev undertook reforms that would eventually make the world safer, yet sow the seeds for his own downfall. Footage of the Summit meeting with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik serves as the pivotal moment beginning a new relationship with The West. 

Herzog’s cameras visit that same house today and show tourists still coming to the historic meeting spot. It was all part of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) which Gorbachev saw as essential in creating a new, modern Soviet Union. It was this new liberalism and acceptance of differing views that lead to the fateful events of 1989 when the Soviet Union crumbled along with the Berlin Wall. 

Gorbachev shares his respect for the German people and Herzog tells Gorbachev “We love you.” Through interviews with former German diplomats along with Reagan cabinet officials George Schultz and James Baker we get a picture of how much respect Gorbachev has in the Free World.   

The sad end of Gorbachev’s days on the world stage are explored starting with the failed coup against him in 1991 which led to Boris Yeltin’s ascension as the leader of Russia and then to Vladimir Putin who is hardly featured at all in this film. By the end of that year Gorbachev was forced to sign papers dissolving the Union. He refused to sign it on live TV and make a show out of his demise.

Ultimately Gorbachev is shown as a sad, tragic figure. He’s given virtually no credit for getting Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, reducing nuclear weapons and allowing freedom to take hold in Eastern Europe. Herzog doesn’t ask if Gorbachev thinks the old Communist system was worth saving. Could he have remade the old, worn out engine of Soviet Communism into something modern and workable like socialist Scandinavia? But Gorbachev says his life ended the day his wife Raisa died in 1999. She lives on in his memory and he shares one of his favorite poems expressing his desire to live on in memory after he’s laid to rest. 

You see Director Herzog brings Gorbachev a huge gift box sent from England of sugar-free chocolates (he has diabetes) for his 87th birthday. We think this film film is an even bigger gift to him, and to us.

The Orchard             90 Minutes                Documentary NR

Playing at the Music Box Theatre Friday and Saturday night, May 10th and 11, with Director Werner Herzog in attendance.

from Movies and Shakers

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