Review: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2011)

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Director: Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
Country: Germany
Genre: Documentary
Official Trailer: Here


Happy People: A Year in the Taiga opens in limited release tomorrow, Janauary 25th

When in doubt, there are but four key words the documentarian need consider: what would Werner do? Rising to fame originally for his narrative features of the 1970s, Herzog finds more recognition these days for his career in documentary filmmaking, recent works like Encounters at the End of the World and Grizzly Man setting him aside as one of the medium’s greatest talents. There’s no telling if Russian documentarian Dmitry Vasyukov asked himself what Werner would do as he was shooting a television miniseries following the hard lives of animal trappers in the Siberian wilderness, but he got the answer regardless when Herzog joined the project to trim it to feature length and contribute one of his pensively existential voiceover accompaniments to forge Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.

It’s of immense benefit, of course, that Vasyukov’s original work was so confident in its execution, his framing capturing these characters against the bleak backdrop of their boreal surrounds much in the same way as Herzog’s entrancing narration explores their existence in the context of nature’s foreboding immensity.

happy3It’s no great surprise to see a story such as this adopted by Herzog; he accepts co-director credit for his restructuring of the production, his guidance forging a specific narrative that neatly disguises the transition from television to cinema. It’s of immense benefit, of course, that Vasyukov’s original work was so confident in its execution, his framing capturing these characters against the bleak backdrop of their boreal surrounds much in the same way as Herzog’s entrancing narration explores their existence in the context of nature’s foreboding immensity. It’s this manner of presentation that sees the film so naturally fit alongside those of Herzog’s that have similarly examined our species in the framework of our surroundings, considering us in the context of a world we think we rule, but which really rules us.

Vasyukov elicits from his interviewees frank descriptions of their foreboding winter isolation, the forthright loneliness of these men as they shuffle from cabin to cabin with only their dogs for comfort bringing a warmth of emotion in poetic contrast to the enshrouding cold of the taiga. He probes deeply into the collective psyche of this culture, examining the lives of those left behind as much as he does those of the trappers themselves. The rituals of old remembered only by one wrinkled face; the charms and trinkets used to keep bad luck away; the humble prayers of worried women left waiting for the men to return: we garner gradually an understanding of the functioning of this community, and with it a profound respect.

He is to Vasyukov’s images as these hunters’ dogs are to their masters: dedicated servants who uncover the spoils of the hunt, who sniff out the true value in this desolate landscape.

happy4Where the film finds its real impact, unsurprisingly, is in the typically incisive commentary of Herzog, the almost whimsical pondering of his narration rendered utterly sincere in the harsh honesty of his voice. He is to Vasyukov’s images as these hunters’ dogs are to their masters: dedicated servants who uncover the spoils of the hunt, who sniff out the true value in this desolate landscape. Herzog fashions of Vasyukov’s footage a film that’s all the more focused, more probing, more meaningful and impactful. His dulcet Bavarian intonations heap philosophical rumination atop this depiction of traditional trapping, bringing deep inquisition to every on-screen action we see, gradually espousing the significance of the title through his peculiar manner of viewing the world.

Yet for all the experience and aplomb Herzog brings to Happy People, his is an approach best-suited to measured examinations of all facets of a subject; as strong a foundation as Vasyukov’s work offers, Herzog’s absence in the midst of the filming is felt. With neither the inherent brilliance—manic as it was—of Grizzly Man, nor the distinctly cinematic qualities of Encounters at the End of the World or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it has the quality of a good film desperately striving to be great, its impassionate soaring score and brief moments of anecdotal excellence the few exceptions to this qualitative disparity. In the end, Happy People is but half Herzog, and as impressive as the input of Vasyukov is—and its merits should not be understated, particularly for one with no prior credits—it is equally but half a great work.

[notification type=”star”]77/100 ~ GOOD. Where Happy People finds its real impact, unsurprisingly, is in the typically incisive commentary of Herzog, the almost whimsical pondering of his narration rendered utterly sincere in the harsh honesty of his voice. He fashions of Vasyukov’s footage a film that’s all the more focused, more probing, more meaningful and impactful.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • Thanks for the review. Sounds like I just might have to check this movie out.