Directed by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov
When it comes to Werner Herzog’s chronicles of life lived at its extremity, his most famous work is arguably his fiction, with Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre standing out and above the rest in its depiction of men driven wild by ambition and the alien South American landscape they seek to conquer.
From the dense jungle to barren tundra, Herzog and collaborator Dmitry Vasyukov switch gears with Happy People, a dialled back but dialled in portrait of fur trappers in Siberia; a group of hardy men who endure life at its limits in a frozen wilderness for months on end with little company other than their hunting dog and whatever thoughts they entertain between their arduous work.
Herzog and Vasyukov present it all in intimate camcorder quality that feels more at home in a 90s home video rather than 2010, but it also invokes an intimacy, huddled together as you are with these men as they ski, walk and snowmobile their way around to check on their traps and prepare cabins.
It’s a simple presentation of deceptively simple people. They provide matter-of-fact descriptions of their life and skills, presenting their know-how with a straightforward ease that reveals the decades of practice that lie behind it. Be it how to make traps or choosing a good dog, they speak of it not with pride, but in appreciation of its importance.
Only once does a younger trapper veer into existential territory about what it means to him to be out here, alone, up against the elements with nothing between him and the land. It’s satisfying, he says, being one with the Taiga.
I’m personally a fan of how Herzog injects his pitch-black commentary into his documentaries, arguing that birds don’t sing in the Amazonian jungle, but rather screech in pain, and the trees there are in misery in a land that God created in anger. His style is iconic by now, but in the case of these modest men and the arguably crueller nature they endure, for once Herzog’s pointification feels out of place.
Herzog holds forth on how they’re content because they live outside society and its rules and laws, completely free men, and he attempts with whiteknuckled hands to force his title of “happy people” over their heads. An argument you feel these men would rather die than make about themselves, and to see Herzog try and lionize them this way, when the evils he describes are so out of these men’s experience, is to feel Herzog’s penchant for subtle manipulation is in this case sheer projection.
When Herzog gets out of your ears, however, what’s left is a simple but significant pleasure in watching skilled people do things well, knowing you’re seeing years of learning, and inherited knowledge, do their thing. Yet even here, at the top of their game, they’re steeped in humility in face of the majestic, but uncaring world they choose to make their way in.
Maybe most modern documentaries hope to illuminate something about the human condition and coax out the pattern in its grand fabric. The worst documentarians do so by marshalling the proceedings instead of following in life’s wake. Herzog is a master at toeing that line, an artist working in a genre that used to be reserved for cinematic stenographers.
Happy People is something purer, something hard to misunderstand, and as cliché as it sounds, a preservation of an important part of life, a testament to how we also were in a time of office workers, smartphones and endless, endless, endless digitized existence. In the Taiga, where these men live, life’s tactile and hard to the touch. It draws blood, freezes your bones, but in return you get nature’s bounty, as they seem to haul fish from every hole in the river, and catch their furry prey at every bend in the snowed-under paths they make. All it asks is that you embrace the hardship every morning you get to see.