As someone who came of age during the end of the Cold War, I remember feeling compassion for the leader of what we then called the Soviet Union. I’ve missed Mikhail Gorbachev, and it is refreshing to see him again in Meeting Gorbachev, Werner Herzog’s surprisingly softhearted new documentary co-directed with André Singer. Mostly comprised of interviews with Gorbachev but also including conversations with those who dealt with him, including James Baker and Lech Walesa as well as plenty of archival footage, the documentary only affirms that missing this man holds a melancholy beyond nostalgia.
This was a man who led the charge to effect positive change in international relations only to be hijacked by ambitious men twisting his socialist reform into a capitalist/authoritarian system that now once again favors the few in power and only the wealthiest people. It began with Boris Yeltsin and continues with Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin. The filmmakers understand, with the state of current affairs, their film stands as a sad reminder of what was lost after Gorbachev was forced out of power. You can forgive this sentiment, if you had any awareness of what the former leader of the USSR did to help end the Cold War, and the film also helps lay that out for those who didn’t grow up watching the news around this time.
Gorbachev’s uphill battle to bring down the Iron Curtain stirred sympathy within me watching the news in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When Ronald Reagan continuously gets credit for saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” on the eve of the reunification of Germany, a sense of betrayal to Gorbachev always creeps in my heart. It was Gorbachev taking on Perestroika and later glasnost that led to the fundamental change in the region. With their film, Herzog and Singer tap into this sympathy to stand as a reminder of where the start of the end of the Cold War began.
Yes, there’s a bit of a love fest going on between Herzog and Gorbachev, as he sits across from a now much more rotund statesman, in need of a cane to get around, his famous birthmark on his bald head faded. Herzog smiles throughout most of his interview, as he projects his thoughts onto Gorbachev via his queries. Meanwhile, Gorbachev comes across as far more sentimental than even Herzog expects. As practical and bold as he was with his reforms, there’s an inherent sympathy Gorbachev had for the citizens of the USSR that made him a good socialist, a word tied to an ideology so easily tossed around to deride a politician in our own current, uneven capitalist system.
The pensive Herzog style seems to have been tempered by his collaboration with Singer. The German filmmaker has never hidden his biases in his documentaries. He often places himself on camera or in voice over where his questions are as important as the answers from his subjects. In Meeting Gorbachev, there’s a restraint and a directness from the filmmakers that respects their subject. When we see Putin pause at the coffin at Gorbachev’s wife in archival footage during her funeral, it’s a heart-stopping moment that the filmmakers don’t need to address beyond the image. The only touch of humor comes in the repetition of Chopin’s funeral march as the previous Russian leaders fall to their own mortality, one after another within a span of months. Meanwhile, Gorbachev rises through the ranks until he inherits the leadership by a sort of mortal default.
There really aren’t any opposing views among the famous talking heads. The drama, however, lies in the tragedy of a man done dirty for all his good intentions. That Herzog and Singer can spice the proceedings with a sentimental joy through the tragedy is not a bad thing and can serve as as a reminder that well-intended leaders can appear in the darkest of places.
Meeting Gorbachev runs 92 minutes, is in English, German and Russian with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens in our South Florida area at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Friday, June 7. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. The Orchard/History Films sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.