Wim Wenders interviewed an idol of his, Pope Francis, for a feature-length documentary, and now the equally idiosyncratic Werner Herzog does the same for one of his, Mikhail Gorbachev. The result borders on hagiography, but it does offer a decent if one-dimensional biographical sketch of a man who firmly believed in communism, yet inadvertently helped bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Herzog mentions that he and the eighty-seven-year old Gorbachev met three times for interviews over the course of six months, and he splices bits and pieces of those conversations into what is basically a conventional sketch of the ex-Soviet leader’s life, from his childhood through his education and rise in party circles to his assumption of the leadership of the USSR in 1985 after the death of his mentor Yuri Andropov and his short-lived successor Chernenko, the last of the old guard.
Herzog himself narrates the biographical material against a backdrop of archival footage and stills, with Gorbachev occasionally interjecting recollections in response to questions. Gorbachev’s comments become somewhat longer as he discusses his tenure through the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991—an event he still remembers ruefully, thinking that giving greater autonomy to the member republics could have saved the confederation, along with its communist foundation.
But what Herzog really lauds Gorbachev for is his embrace of reform—of perestroika and glasnost, which led him to admit publicly the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986—and his refusal to use force to prop up the communist regimes in eastern Europe that collapsed in the last years of the decade. Poland’s Lech Walesa is shown in an interview dismissing Gorbachev’s view that the communist system could be reformed rather than simply abandoned, but other ex-officials, like former Hungarian minister Miklós Németh, praise his allowing the democratic uprisings to succeed, even withdrawing Soviet troops in response to them. Herzog and German interviewees like Horst Teltschik, who served under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, are especially eloquent in lauding not only Gorbachev’s hands-off policy in East Germany, but his willingness not to object to German reunification, which was accomplished remarkably swiftly and peacefully.
The other aspect of Gorbachev’s international policy that Herzog emphasizes is his effort to reduce, and eventually eliminate, nuclear weapons. As the film notes, he found an unlikely ally in that project in President Ronald Reagan, and clips from interviews with such American officials as George Shultz and James Baker support Gorbachev’s own recollections. (By contrast, Margaret Thatcher, with whom he otherwise enjoyed a cordial relationship, is shown expressing the view that getting rid of nuclear weapons would instigate conventional wars.) The present-day interview segments demonstrate that Gorbachev still holds strong views about eliminating nuclear weapons, observing sadly that his own country has undertaken to modernize its nuclear arsenal rather than destroying it.
The portrait of the elderly Gorbachev that Herzog draws at the close is of a lonely man whose loss of his wife Raisa affected him deeply; his own countrymen, moreover, now show as little respect for him as did the Kremlin enemies who tried to depose him in 1991 in the coup that the intervention of Boris Yeltsin, an erstwhile ally turned rival, reversed. But it was Yeltsin who then demanded the dismantling of the USSR and the end of the communist party, and the pained expression on Gorbachev’s face in official footage as government underlings tried to memorialize his humiliation in signing the documents of dissolution on film is read by the almost fawning Herzog as a final refusal to surrender his dignity even under duress.
Herzog occasionally interjects some mordant humor into the film, as in a montage of the end of the dinosaurs who headed the Politburo before Gorbachev’s ascent in 1985—from the last years of the feeble, forgetful Brezhnev through Andropov and Chernenko, whose almost constant hospitalization was camouflaged by staged “working sessions” with his staff. More characteristic, however, is the sequence in which Herzog presents his subject with a gift—a box of specially-made sugar-free chocolates that the diabetic Gorbachev will be able to eat. It proves a fitting culmination to a gentle, respectful tribute to a man whom Herzog obviously considers among the wisest, most consequential world leaders of the late twentieth century, and one who does not receive the acclaim he deserves.
Whether you agree with that assessment or not, “Meeting Gorbachev” offers the opportunity to see the man explaining himself before the bar of history within the context of an able, if selective, portrait of his career.