German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s career can be neatly and conveniently divided into two distinct segments. Beginning with 1970’s Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen (Even Dwarfs Started Small) and continuing through 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, the iconoclastic director created a remarkable series of frequently brilliant (and never boring) character studies about obsessed loners and outsiders kicking against the pricks of both nature and society.
Parallel to his work in dramatic features, the tireless Herzog has also somehow found time to direct numerous documentaries. As intrigued with real-life loners and outsiders as he is with fictional ones, his non-fiction films have examined such unique characters as bizarre televangelist Gene Scott (Glaube und Währung – Dr. Gene Scott, Fernsehprediger, 1981), borderline psychopath and frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski (My Best Fiend, 1997), and loopy but lovable bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man, 2005).
Fictional or not, however, a Herzog film is always something special, and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (opening on Friday Feb. 22 at Landmark’s California Theatre) is no exception to the rule. Filmed by co-director Dmitry Vasyukov over the course of a year in one of the remotest places on earth, the film examines life in Bakhtia, a small village nestled on the banks of Siberia’s Yenisei River.
Inhabited by 300 hardy residents, Bakhtia is only accessible from the outside via helicopter or boat during its extremely short summer. In winter, the temperature frequently hovers around minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit; in summer – when the sun is up for 20 hours a day – it’s a moist, fecund, swampy morass in which mosquitoes reign supreme.
It’s during this brief window of opportunity that Bakhtians prepare for the next cold snap. During the long days of June and July they repair homes and equipment damaged in previous bouts of extreme weather, make skis and dugout canoes, trap sable, moose, and bear, and catch fish in sufficient numbers to feed both themselves and their dogs during the frigid months. Completely at the mercy of nature, the villagers have no choice but to live in harmony with it.
Nonetheless, there’s a clear societal pecking order in Bakhtia. The majority of residents are ethnic Russians, descendents primarily of settlers sent to the region during Soviet times to tame the wilderness. They’ve displaced the small sub-community of Kets, an indigenous nomadic people now suffering from the familiar plagues of poverty and alcoholism. Fewer than 2,000 Ket remain alive throughout the world, and it seems likely that the language and customs of this distinctly unhappy people will die out entirely in the next few generations.
Herzog’s lifelong fascination for the harsh and cruel realities of nature is as evident as ever, as is his admiration for those who struggle against them. Gennady, a trapper assigned to the Taiga in 1970, unconsciously summarizes the Herzog attitude to life: industry and perseverance are allies, greed is the enemy, and we are all, in one way or another, killers or accomplices. It’s as if he grew up watching Herzog’s entire filmography – except, of course, neither cinema nor television are available within several hundred miles of his off-the-grid wooden hut.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. It’s a post-your-own calendar so we also encourage you to submit your own events.