BEIRUT: Over his 57 years making movies, Werner Herzog has carved out two film careers. Naturally, most critical and box-office attention has issued from his great feature-length fictions - “Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” and so forth.
Alongside his features Herzog has assembled a distinct oeuvre of documentaries. These imaginative, often impish, works place the filmmaker in conversation with eccentrics who’ve lived in proximity to something remarkable.
Take Juliane Koepcke, the German who, having survived a plane crash in 1971, walked out of the rainforest, alone a feat Herzog recreated in “Wings of Hope.”
Then there’s the subjects of “The Dark Glow of the Mountains,” Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner, two mad Italian mountaineers who’ve made a career of risking their lives while climbing things.
A darker figure, Michael Perry, subject of “Into the Abyss,” was executed after being convicted of committing murder and being an accessory to two. Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” documents a brief visit to France’s Chauvet caves, housing our oldest examples of artistic figuration, but the caves’ co-stars are the humans who make their living there.
Herzog’s “Meeting Gorbachev” is documentary of a different order - a timely 2018 profile of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the Soviet Union (1922-1991), who initiated a series of state reforms and tugged the U.S. toward banning all short- and medium-range nuclear weapons.
“Meeting Gorbachev,” which opens the Ecrans du Reel documentary festival Thursday evening, includes snatches of the last of Herzog’s three meetings with the then-87-year-old politician, held over six months in 2018.
Augmenting these spoonfuls of conversation are past remarks by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as well as the reflections of Gorbachev’s contemporaries - former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz; James Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff and George Bush senior’s secretary of state; Horst Teltschik, Helmut Kohl’s national security adviser.
These are supplemented by footage of the Russian countryside today and an array of family photos and archival footage tracking Gorbachev’s public life from the 1970s through his rule to after his 1991 resignation.
Herzog remarks how, thanks to the Nazi invasion that left 25 million Soviets dead, a German’s conversation with a Russian can be historically fraught. Gorbachev demurs that his first encounters with Germans had been very positive, not least because of the delicious gingerbread biscuits they made.
Herzog says he was skeptical of Gorbachev’s magnanimity throughout their time together, “but by the end of our conversations ... I understood that everything about Gorbachev was genuine.”
As he and co-director Andre Singer present Gorbachev with a small hoard of sugar-free English chocolate, Herzog admirers may notice how little skepticism this film reserves for its subject compared to his earlier docs. The filmmaker is an unapologetic fan of Gorbachev, whom he ultimately depicts as a tragic hero of recent history.
Herzog is less interested in pushing Gorbachev’s buttons than he is in reminding the audience that the politician is responsible for making nuclear disarmament a policy to be implemented, rather than an ideal to be discussed. He ushered in a brief era in which statesmanship was governed by reason - in stark contrast to the present era of authoritarian rule.
“Meeting Gorbachev” is not classic Herzog. Still, it’s notable that this contribution to Trump-era cultural production abjures mentioning its name.
“Meeting Gorbachev” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday, May 2, at 8 p.m.