Happy People: A Year in the Taiga Reviews
"...and the birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain."
In his recent film, "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga", he's done a complete about-face, creating a paeon to nature: a cross between a Leni Riefenstahl-style "Bergfilme" and a Disney documentary.
Let's not forget, this is a director who created a definitive cinematic statement on man's powerlessness against nature - "Aguirre - The Wrath of God" In that film nature is an irresistable force that causes only madness and death.
Even as recently as" Grizzly Man" there was an ominous undertone to his depiction of the natural world. Gradually though, as in "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" and E"ncounters at the End of the World, " his view has become much more sanguine. And by that I don't mean "bloody".
"The Happy People" features self-reflective, ethnic-Russian fur-trappers, musing philosophically as they conquer nature with a series of canny traps, self-made gadgets, dugout canoes, and home-brewed insect repellent (along with snowmobiles, chainsaws and plastic sheeting). I find this sort of thing very enjoyable, there's a Robinson Crusoe-esque self-reliant quality that seems like a good antidote to the anxiety of modern life.
The problem I had with "The Happy People" isn't want Herzog puts in, it's what he leaves out. He barely touches on the indigenous "Ket" people of that region of Siberia, who are at the bottom of the social order. They are plagued by alcoholism, and their culture and language are disappearing. These are not the "Happy People". They are like the mythological Eris, left out of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis ,and it would have been more fruitful for Herzog to explore their discord. They in fact invented many of these canny traps and techniques that the Russians use.
But Herzog now seems to be beyond provocation and provocativeness. He's in a steady groove that ignores reality but garners good reviews all around. Kael's comments on later Scorcese seem applicable:
"He has become a much more proficient craftsman... but the first films he did that I responded to intensely - Mean Streets and Taxi Driver had a sense of discovery. He was looking into himself and the world.... Even though Scorcese shows what he can do in some ways, he doesn't shape the material." (Conversations with Pauline Kael, p. 167)
I have some other quibbles. Could a man really travel 150 kilometers in -50F weather at night in a snowmobile? I don't think "Survivorman" would try this with the best gear. How would you survive if your snowmobile breaks down? How do you get out of bed when it's that cold? How do you wash yourself? How happy a person are you when a tooth becomes infected?
Creative people often have a brief shining period of amazing originality, followed by years of reputation-coasting. It's unreasonable to expect everyone to be Picasso. Herzog has become a master emcee. I'll remember his earlier work. I'll remember Woody Allen's "earlier, funnier films" too.
In the meantime, may I recommend the low-budget film "Alone in the Wilderness", the story of a man who builds himself a log cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with just hand tools. Think of it as "The Happy People" without the quirky Bavarian voice-over.
The film in a carefree manner captures the genius & eccentricity of the men & how incredible their talent & practical skills are.
As the title suggests they are clearly Happy Individuals that live unique but rich lives in the harsh wilderness.
This is a kind of films that it makes you fell how the world is much bigger than your house, your bed and your Iphone. Another masterpiece produced by Herzog with the Russian director Vasyukov.
A very fulfilling documentary, especially if you enjoy winter camping :)
Visually, the film is stunning, as Herzog's work tends to be. Here Herzog is able to put to film something that seems surreal, it is so foreign to us. It is always engaging, and features just the right mix of narration, images, and dialoged from the trappers. Herzog lets what they say unfold organically, and the shots he is able to captures are nothing short of astonishing.
An excellent documentary.