My parents made sure I watched the jubilant dismantling of the Berlin Wall on TV, “This is important,” they said. And they were right. Since then, I got an advanced degree in German cultural history and Berlin became my favorite city in the world, so I often find myself thinking about the incredible transformation of that city and of Germany since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Mikhail Gorbachev is arguably the single person most specifically responsible for those transformations, the ones that get me choked up on random streets when I have the privilege of spending time in Berlin. This fact is not and has never been lost on most Germans, certainly not Werner Herzog. There are plenty of people, especially in America, who don’t know Gorbachev and the events that ended the Cold War or actively misremember them. One of the many differences between me and Werner Herzog is that when he thinks the world could do with some better remembering, he can arrange a series of interviews with Mikhail Gorbachev himself and make a movie about it.
Meeting Gorbachev is the name of the resulting documentary, referring both to Herzog’s face-to-face meetings with Gorbachev, but also, obliquely to the need to essentially re-introduce Mikhail Gorbachev to a new generation. Our first time sitting down with Herzog and Gorbachev, Herzog begins by asking a presumptuous question, whose premise Gorbachev immediately rejects, but who then proceeds to deliver an affecting and informative story about meeting his first German. Gorbachev’s delightful response to this opening (for us) question sets the tone for the rest of the film and demonstrates quite clearly the core reason that Herzog wanted to make this documentary about Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev beyond all that history stuff: he is a warm, generous, intelligent man with vast reserves of sympathy for his fellow human beings who was 87 years old at time of recording. We may not have him much longer.
Herzog’s affection for Gorbachev is evident, but Herzog is never afraid to ask challenging or even brusque questions or to simply endure through awkward moments. The jarring awkwardness of some of these interviews is fascinating. Herzog and his co-director André Singer choose not to cut away from the many pauses in conversation as the translators work to keep up with the questions and the responses, so we see two people engaged in an act of communication that often almost feels like it’s teetering on the brink of collapse. As a filmmaking tool, I found these unwieldy silences endearing, particularly as the subject matter gets weightier and more personal, but there’s no question that Herzog’s face to faces with Gorbachev are a bumpy ride, in stark contrast to the polish of the other interviews.
Herzog soon pulls back from the interview proper to power us through Gorbachev’s personal history at warp speed: his childhood, his education, his marriage, and his career as an apparatchik in Stavropol, the 1940s to the 1980s, in less than five minutes. The film’s primary interest in Gorbachev are the events that make him beloved of so many Germans, so we slow down once we get to the pathetic end of Brezhnev’s term as General Secretary in 1982. There is some irony in hearing Herzog at 76 discuss the spectacular failures of imagination and leadership of a series of infirm, doddering old men with evident disgust for their age but the archival footage he and Singer have gathered of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko absolutely bears out his disdain for these sickly men who couldn’t run an office, let alone a nuclear superpower. You could not ask for a better representation of a rotten system that needed change.
Gorbachev brought youth and vitality to the office of General Secretary, but he also brought a level of sincerity that the Soviet Union had rarely experienced in its leaders (and arguably none of its successor states have since). Gorbachev remains a true believer in the core humanist values of Communism. Perestroika and glasnost were not buzzwords to him, they were not Soviet brand management. Gorbachev believed then, and clearly still believes, that you could bring democracy and transparency to Communism, that you could make it better. What’s striking about the other collection of extremely old men in this movie, the one Herzog assembles to talk about the end of the Cold War, is that none of these people is even remotely close to having a good opinion of Communism, but they all recognize and react to Gorbachev’s sincerity. James Baker and George Shultz (who was flat out old when he was SecState in 1986 — he’s gorram 98 in this film) are old guard Republicans. Lech Walesa never had any kind of love for Communism. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could not be accused of anything like affinity for ideas even in the neighborhood of Communism, but they all understood that Gorbachev was different, that in Thatcher’s words “You can do business with him.”
The stark comparisons between the men who led Poland, Hungary, the US, and Russia at the end of the Cold War and the current leaders of those countries are there to be made and are undoubtedly worth dwelling on though Meeting Gorbachev does not do so. The pieces are there for Herzog to create a searing moral indictment of the catastrophic failures of leadership and morality that are responsible for this utterly grotesque farce of a geopolitical catastrophe we currently live in. Instead of putting those angry pieces together for us, he shows us the 600 km human chain the folks formed in the Baltics, he shows us an Austrian news presenter who spends more time talking about how to get rid of slugs than the Hungarians cutting down the literal part of the Iron Curtain, he shows us the Monday protesters chanting “Wir Sind das Volk” “WE are the people.” Herzog wants us to dwell on expressions of hope and bewilderment, on the dreams Gorbachev’s work inspired and/or moved forward, not frustration and not rage.
Herzog and Singer also show us what kind of man Gorbachev is and was, the man in the chair across from him, the man who mourns the death of his wife, now and then. It is powerfully fitting that this film ends with Gorbachev’s attempt to grapple with his legacy, what is and what could have been. Herzog bluntly asks Gorbachev to share his epitaph. Gorbachev demurs, offering only one that he liked from a friend, which is beautiful in its agonizing simplicity: “We tried.” That still gets to me. I don’t think Gorbachev meant it in an angry way, but in my current state of mind, that’s as close as the film gets to a f#&$ you to the jackasses strutting around the world stage today, who will never be able to say with any honesty or justice that they tried to make the world a better place. Herzog does not want to leave us with that anger though, as plainly as it pulses in my blood; he wants to leave us with poetry. Meeting Gorbachev is an act of remembering, an attempt to dream out loud again the impossible dreams of democracy, freedom, and nuclear disarmament so that what could have been might some day be.