Happy People: A Year in the Taiga | Movie review
Where has Werner Herzog gone to this time?
The title is crucial: In the solitary routines of Siberian trappers—the indigenous breadwinners of a remote village called Bakhtia—the director of Fitzcarraldo and The White Diamond sees life lived to its fullest. So Herzogian is this encounter at the end of the world that it’s a little surprising the great German filmmaker wasn’t there for the project’s inception. As in the fascinating Grizzly Man, he’s reshaped pre-existing material—in this case, a four-hour documentary by Dmitry Vasyukov, made for Russian television—into one of his philosophical tributes to avid outdoorsmen. Organized around the changing seasons, and sprinkled with Herzog’s Teutonic-accented ruminations, Happy People captures the hardships and joys of off-the-grid existence.
Among the film’s subjects, all candid professionals roughing it in extreme conditions, the most interesting is the bearded, soft-spoken Gennady Soloviev. His eloquent musings provide an emotional center, especially when they touch upon his complicated relationship with animals. (Though he makes his living off hides, Soloviev expresses kinship with his canine companions—and, in a poignant anecdote, grief about the death of two of them at the paws of a bear.) A more probing interviewer than is often suggested, Herzog might have delved even deeper into the private lives of these private men. As he shot not a frame of the footage, his influence over the observational proceedings is limited. Well, relatively speaking: Who but Herzog would present the frigid isolation of Siberia as paradise on Earth?