Werner Herzog seems to have calmed down a bit about nature, a subject he's often brooded about in the many documentary and fictional films he's made since the 1960s. In the "Minnesota Declaration," a 1999 manifesto, he suggested that life in the oceans is "a vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger."
He sings a somewhat different tune in his new movie, "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga," a documentary about Siberian fur trappers who live and work in extreme conditions. Of course, the title refers to a Herzogian definition of happiness, which is stoic at heart, having everything to do with his subjects' ability to face a hard life with fortitude, skill, endurance and a deep understanding of and respect for their hostile environment.
The trappers live in Bakhtia, a tiny village that's way off the grid it can only be reached by helicopter or, if the river isn't frozen, by boat. ("Taiga" refers to subarctic forest at the edge of the tundra.) With few exceptions, like the use of snowmobiles, the way they work hasn't changed in hundreds of years. Usually accompanied only by their loyal dogs, they trap sable, operating out of remote cabins they build and laboriously maintain.
It's a do-it-yourself world that Herzog clearly admires much of what we see is the men performing the tasks that enable them to survive. It's riveting to watch the film's main subject, a lean, bearded fellow named Gennady Soloviev, use a hatchet to carve himself a pair of skis from a log. We also learn about the arts of ice fishing, making mosquito repellent out of bark and constructing traps that will survive winters of 50 below.
The movie is exceptional in Herzog's canon because he didn't film it himself. He took an existing, four-hour documentary made for Russian TV by Dmitry Vasyukov, cut it to 94 minutes (working with his usual editor, the highly esteemed Joe Bini) and added narration.
If you know Herzog, you know what to expect. His entertainingly deadpan voiceovers sometimes oracular, occasionally flirting with the absurd are well-known enough to have inspired many YouTube parodies.
Though perhaps not in the first rank of Herzog documentaries, "Happy People" is well worth seeing. There is intense, harsh beauty in many of the scenes, and it's impossible to watch the film without sharing Herzog's deep, genuine liking for his subjects.
The filmmaker has stated many times that he doesn't understand irony. When he says these people are happy, he means it.
'HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA'
Director: Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov
Rated: Not rated
Length: 94 minutes
Fri, March 1: (4:15), 6:30
Sat & Sun, March 2-3: (2:00), 4:15
Mon, March 4: 6:30 PM
Tue & Wed, March 5: (4:15), 6:30
Thu, March 6: 6:00 PM