A meeting of two Titans is dulled by hagiography

Ruairí McCann on Werner Herzog’s ‘Meeting Gorbachev’ (2018)

With the exception of Lenin and Stalin, no Soviet leader has provoked more dissension in the ranks of both the right and left than the last. The six-year leadership of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was marked and then spiralled by a series of reforms (dubbed collectively Perestroika and Glasnost) that were intended to democratise the Soviet system but instead led to the led to its dissolution and the establishment of the Russian Federation, turning him into a curious and paradoxical case. One of the last half century’s most praised proponents of democracy and civil liberties whose greatest achievement is synonymous with colossal failure that paved the way for kleptocracy. Someone who is still iconic in his home country yet whose attempts at re-election have failed miserably based in no small part on resentment from said failure and in the contradiction of him being a walking and talking embodiment of the nostalgia for the Soviet Union who guest stars in Pizza Hut commercials.

From the onset, Werner Herzog (joined by a co-director, André Singer) signals that the approach to such complexity will be one of simplicity. It is in the use of the casual, or even prosaic, ‘meeting’ in the title, which is then followed through in the set-up and structure of the film itself: ninety or so minutes that consist of a shot-reverse-shot conversation between the two men, in Gorbachev’s modestly decorated office. Their exchange covers in broad strokes the length and breadth of his life. From his peasant upbringing through to his rise, acquisition and then loss of power, with relatively more detail devoted to his time as general party secretary and the aftermath.

Herzog intercuts with talking-head interviews featuring a few of Gorbachev’s contemporaries, east and west, with some stirrings of a jumbled up historiography in the contrast between praise bestowed by an ideological opposite like Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, to the mixed feelings of Miklós Németh, a man who was in a similar position as the last chairman of the Hungarian People’s Republic. But most potently, there is the illustration – a wealth of archival footage which Herzog often uses to underscore the theatricality of political power. The most sterling example of this is a sequence showing how Gorbachev became party secretary in the turmoil following leader Leonid Brezhnev’s declining health and then death, whereupon the resultant power games played out behind a curtain made out of a succession of two placeholder leaders Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Their extremely brief terms (ending with their lives) led to Gorbachev.

Though first, the sequence begins years before with a younger incarnation of the man receiving a commendation from Brezhnev. In the footage of the ceremony, Herzog zeroes in on the moment where the latter’s intended public persona, as a leader who is cool-headed and iron hard, is chipped by the reality of atrophy. For Brezhnev, hampered by advanced dementia, fumbles the star recipient’s name, prompting an assistant to panic and rush forward in order to remedy the faux pas, creating a fluctuation in the otherwise solidly manufactured pomp. This is followed, after Brezhnev’s death, with a recently promoted Andropov giving a conference in what looks like a press room, but Herzog reveals it is his death bed, set decorated to hide that Andropov was dying of kidney failure. How ramshackle and ultimately farcical these theatrics are, is magnified by Herzog gluing them together with footage of state funerals, one for each successive dead premier. The falsity of the whole process is rammed home with every cut to these different but near identical ceremonies. Their momentousness undermined through reputation, as that same solemn dirge, procession, and the surrounding crowds start to look like tired ritual and wooden actors.

Little from the spine of the film linger as long in the mind as this sequence. For the conversation between Herzog and Gorbachev, despite their charisma and a semblance of a rapport, never rises above the impression that we are just scratching at the surface. It is not as if Herzog ever promises an excoriating takedown that he fails to deliver. Instead, he is quite transparent about his admiration for his subject, making it crystal clear both to the audience and the man himself. A not insignificant side effect is that an aspect of Herzog that is rarely seen is put on display, an oddly timid and fragile seeming sliver of a persona that is romantic yet usually sober. For here, he hangs back and excitedly frets during an opening scene where Gorbachev is presented with a cake with some structural damage, or when Gorbachev let’s drop an aside about a West German minister comparing him to Goebbels, Herzog delivers an overly fawning and profuse apology.

The results are a fatal split between how canny Herzog is when handling the recorded materials of his subject and how he holds back when face-to-face. It is disappointing to see Gorbachev’s deflections or reiterations of skin-deep statements on topics such as the failure of his reforms, the aftermath of Chernobyl, and his endorsement of the First Gulf War — answers that can be culled in abundance from even a cursory search online — get followed up by reverse shots of Herzog beaming blankly. He can be an extremely discerning and idiosyncratic interviewer, but here he seems a little too happy not to counter and, instead, move on with no alterations to make on the legacy seated before him.

Meeting Gorbachev is showing in select cinemas now.

Ruairí McCann

By Ruairí McCann

Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He runs a monthly film column for Film Hub NI and has appeared in Photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Little White Lies, and The Thin Air.