It's easy to see why Mikhail Gorbachev is the latest subject of a Werner Herzog documentary (co-directed with Andre Singer). The former Soviet Union President represents many of the director’s obsessions. He’s a titan of history. He is, still, a figure of great controversy. Defined by his ideals and his personality, he has seen great success, great influence, and great tragedy in his (at the time of shooting) 87 years on Earth. He's one of the most complex and important politicians of the century, and Herzog’s film makes a fairly compelling case for him being the greatest politician of all time.
Taking the form of an extended conversation with occasional breakouts to other material, Meeting Gorbachev is unabashedly a dream interview for Herzog. His fawning admiration for the man - a hero to post-reunification Germany - is clear from the outset. He kicks off the film by musing that Gorbachev’s earliest interactions with Germans must have been adversarial, attempting to construct a typically Herzogian narrative about their titular meeting. Though slowed with age, Gorbachev clicks as to what Herzog is trying to do, and quickly spins his own more-positive story in contrast. From then on, it’s a sparkling conversation to watch, from Gorbachev’s delight at his 87th-birthday present of sugar-free chocolates to Herzog’s delight at merely being there.
Herzog’s director’s note states that he didn’t want to make a traditional biographical documentary, but he covers the basics anyway. Gorbachev’s poor childhood and his rise through the Communist Party ranks toward its leadership are briskly sped through, so as to spend more time on the good stuff. His key achievements, as per the documentary, are nuclear disarmament, the reunification of Germany, and - setting him apart from just about any other leader - the peaceful evaporation of his own country. For viewers watching Chernobyl, that disaster makes an appearance too, presented as a major lesson and turning point for both the USSR and Gorbachev’s running of it.
One aspect of Gorbachev that certainly aided in his political success is his good-humoured personability, which is reflected in the film even through Herzog himself. The director’s eye for irony and wry humor comes through in his conversation with the former president, as well as his appreciation of the more amusing oddities of history. The absurd leadership dominoes that led to Gorbachev’s presidency bring to mind nothing less than The Death of Stalin, while other anecdotes provide their own laugh-out-loud moments. With precise editing and droll narration, the comedy of Gorbachev’s life is brought up to match its drama.
This wouldn't be a Herzog film without a human tragedy at the center of it, and in Gorbachev’s case that tragedy is personal as well as political. It’s easy to point to the death of his wife, who served as his closest confidant, and Herzog pays her memory as much attention as Gorbachev seems to have allowed. The more difficult tragedy to imagine, with a hindsight that sees the Soviet Union only as what it was and not what it could have been, is Gorbachev’s regret that the USSR did not live longer. Thanks to a series of power struggles, the Soviet Union rapidly disintegrated in the early ‘90s, and his vision for a social democracy spanning the whole of Europe was never realised. Gorbachev doesn't go deep on his regrets, but Herzog lets him sit in his ruminations long enough that they're acutely felt.
And yet, Gorbachev even sees the dissolution of his own country as a net positive. It cost him his career, and it threw the region to leaders with less-solid ideals, but it ended the Cold War and brought about nuclear disarmament (Gorbachev says he just “doesn’t get” why world leaders are so hungry for nukes), so it was still worth it. Notably, Gorbachev stresses how the end of the Cold War was a win for the world, expressing puzzlement at Americans’ tendency to see it as a victory for themselves. There’s hardly a better illustration of the difference in basic philosophy between socialism and capitalism than that.
Herzog's interest in Gorbachev, and ours, is also coloured by the contrast between the Gorbachev era and today. Though Donald Trump is never mentioned by name, the state of global politics he represents is referred to often. Speaking with Gorbachev and his contemporaries, Herzog draws connections between the adversarial Cold War they helped to end and the new Cold Wars being ushered in by today's vengeful and selfish politicians. The United States’ and Russia’s nuclear re-armament in particular are thrown into sharp relief. Vladimir Putin makes a single appearance in the film, at the funeral of Gorbachev’s wife, and it serves as a chilling reminder of how far Russia has fallen back into the corruption, totalitarianism, and global conflict Gorbachev sought to reform.
That’s as far as Herzog is willing to go in terms of criticising Gorbachev. His failures are presented as inevitabilities and betrayals; his goals and achievements, as positives for the world entire. Some of that’s pretty clear-cut, like Gorbachev’s dream of total nuclear disarmament, but the rest will depend on your personal view of Gorbachev, the USSR, and 20th century history. For cinemagoers, though, Meeting Gorbachev is a breezy, engaging look at a profoundly influential historical figure before he passes away. He's asked God for two years.