Werner Herzog's "Happy People": Eco-Friendly Survival in the Siberian Wilds

Werner Herzog's "Happy People": Eco-Friendly Survival in the Siberian Wilds
Returning from the wilderness: Werner Herzog’s documentary “Happy People”
(© Studio Babelsberg)

Where Werner Herzog’s 1993 “Bells from the Deep” was a stylized and semi-fabricated examination of mysticism bordering on superstition in Siberia, his new documentary about Siberian lives lived in extremis is a strictly secular study of endurance and subsistence in the wilderness.

Although Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov are credited as the co-directors of “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” (opening at IFC Center in New York on Friday), Herzog didn’t take the mandatory helicopter or boat to the isolated village of Bakhta (population 300) on the River Yenisei, which divides east Siberia from west. The four hours of digital footage shot there by Vasyukov was discovered by the prolific German auteur in a friend’s house in Los Angeles and, with the former’s permission, was shaped by him into a coherent spring-to-winter anthropological documentary.

Via the terse rhetoric of Herzog’s voiceover narration, “Happy People” celebrates the self-reliance of the flak-jacketed Russian trappers and fishermen and their families who have settled in Bakhta. The age-old chores carried out by the film’s 55-ish main protagonist Gennady Soloviev include splitting trees for timber, making skis and canoes to specific designs, and, once out on the 1,500 square kilometer range consigned him to when he trapped for the state, setting snares for the lucrative trade – sable and ermine – and fishing for pike.

Herzog extols the trappers’ fall-time ventures into the wild, where they live off the land, free from technology, government, bureaucracy, and laws, dependent only on their “individual values and standards of conduct.” But Westernization hasn’t entirely neglected Soloviev and his fellows, who include Mikhail Tarkovsky, from the same family as the great Soviet director Andrei. Though they have no phones or electric lights, they avail themselves of snowmobiles, buzzsaws, rifles – Tarkovsky shoots the fish he pulls from the water – and plastic, which keeps at bay the mice seeking the trappers’ winter provisions.

A single father to the teenage son he’s training, Soloviev matter-of-factly remarks that his partner couldn’t cope with the lifestyle. His hunting dogs are his companions. He doesn’t mollycoddle them, but briefly becomes sentimental describing the death of a beloved dog that was ripped open fighting a bear. He shot the beast, but doesn't say if he killed it.

Where Herzog’s earlier found footage documentaries “The Wild Blue Yonder” and “Grizzly Man” (both 2005) augment in different ways his reputation as a self-mythologizing visionary, “Happy People” is more akin to Flahertian and Griersonian ethnographic work films. The title and Soloviev’s avowals of eco-friendliness suggests it wouldn’t be out of place on the National Geographic Channel. Militating against that, though, is a troubling scene featuring alcoholic Kets, the rapidly dwindling native people who survive performing menial tasks such as driftwood-gathering for the hardier Russians. There’s another movie to be made about their tragedy: a contemporary “Nanook of the North.”