"Mikhail Sergeyevich, please allow me to explain myself," says Werner Herzog. "I am a German, and the first German that you met probably wanted to kill you."
'Meeting Gorbachev' starts with Herzog assuming that Mikhail Gorbachev still harbours resentment towards Germans because of the devastation they visited upon the USSR during World War II. On the contrary, Gorbachev (who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace) assures him. He met German neighbours when he was a child growing up in a small agricultural town, and they made some fantastic ginger cookies. Anyone who made something that delicious, he says, can't be that bad.
Herzog is the director of such notable feature films as 'Aguirre - The Wrath of God', 'Stroszek', 'Woyzek', 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' and 'Fitzcarraldo'. For better or worse, a lot of deep thinkers probably know him as the old dude who chased Baby Yoda in 'The Mandalorian' on Disney+. But the remarkable unity of his work is further confirmed in his numerous documentaries filmed in the Sahara or on the summit of a volcano, in the United States or in Kuwait - he often travels to the furthest reaches of the indifferent wilderness to ponder humanity's place in it.
Herzog and André Singer's latest documentary sees the Bavarian filmmaker sits down for a friendly yak with the man who triggered the biggest arms reduction in world history and ended the Cold War. Herzog's interview with Mikhail Gorbachev also serves as an examination of the conditions within the Soviet Union that allowed Gorbachev to rise to power in the first place.
The first half-hour of 'Meeting Gorbachev' establishes the decades of corruption, double-dealing and political backstabbing that crippled the USSR - along with the blood and treasure wasted in Afghanistan - and made it possible for a reformer to rise through the ranks. Amongst the historical context that is examined are events that shaped not only the Soviet Union but the world: Chernobyl, nuclear disarmament, perestroika and glasnost, an attempted coup, the dissolution of the USSR. Since this is a Herzog film, there's also a sequence in which the director tells viewers how to kill garden slugs with open jars of beer.
When Herzog does settle down with his 87-year-old interview subject, the conversation moves easily from political to personal matters. Herzog, as always, is affable and curious, and Gorbachev is engaged and on point when discussing his nation's transition from communism to capitalism, and the upheaval that came with it. He also opens up when discussing the loss of his wife Raisa, who died in 1999, and expresses his alarm at efforts to reignite the arms race.
Since this is a Herzog film, there's also a sequence in which the director tells viewers how to kill garden slugs with open jars of beer.
Herzog never asks Gorbachev about Putin, about contemporary Russian politics or modern concerns such as Ukraine, cyber warfare and political destabilisation in the West. Largely sticking to Gorbachev's accomplishments - and his belief in the benefits of governments operating, if not side-by-side, at least in unison with each other - these men largely avoid discussing the present.
While the language barrier creates an odd ebb and flow (the filmmakers include the dead spots while one participant or the other listens to the translation rather than cut around them), there is still a disarming casualness to the whole thing. There is also a great deal of affection. "I love you," the film's co-director says to his subject at one point.
Herzog has become almost as much of a meme as Baby Yoda in recent years, with his signature dour voiceovers sent up in cutesy teen movies. But the reason he has such a loyal following is his transcendent empathy as a filmmaker, which is on full display in 'Meeting Gorbachev'.
'Meeting Gorbachev' is screening exclusively in Australia at Melbourne's Cinema Nova.