MEETING GORBACHEV, US/Germany, 2018. Directed by Werner Herzog. 95 miniutes. Rated G (very mild themes)
At the time of the making of this documentary, Mikhail Gorbachev was turning 87. He had been in hospital, was diabetic (and receiving the gift of a sugarless chocolate birthday cake), was happy to be interviewed but, speaking only in Russian to Hertzog’s questions in English, we see that he has slowed down a lot, taking his time to answer the questions, often being brief, but becoming more to life as the interview goes on and he is able to relive his time as president of the Soviet Union.
This is a portrait of Gorbachev himself, of his political activity and its repercussions on the whole world in the latter part of the 1980s and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Hertzog is quite an admirer (much more genial than might have been expected from some of his other documentaries). This is not a warts and all documentary. In fact, no warts at all to speak of.
While there were many in the Soviet Union, collapsing, in the early 1990s, Russians staging a coup against all of while he was on holidays, Boris Yeltsin taking over, who considered Gorbachev a traitor to his Communist and Soviet heritage, he was something of a hero to the world.
This portrait may be aimed at converting those who do not admire Gorbachev but it is definitely a documentary to remind those who do it by him of his achievements.
One of the advantages that Hertzog has is access to a whole range of visual sources, newsreel footage, photos… Which means that in his illustration of Gorbachev’s early life, born 1931, the landscapes of Russia, the fields and harvests, family photos, we are able to build up a picture of the young Gorbachev, working on the farm, going to school, high grades, acceptance at University in Moscow, some law studies, the interest in politics, his becoming a student leader, going back to the provinces as a local organiser, even receiving a medal of acknowledgement from Brezhnev (alarming footage of the old man, senile, wheeled out for public occasions).
We see very quickly, during the premierships of the elderly and drop of an Shenango, that Gorbachev had a wider range of interests, visited the West, learned how the Soviet Union was stagnating and how it needed to reform, glasnost and perestroika, and then assuming power and ushering in a new era which, within six years, led to the end of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev was quite a world figure during the last half of the 1980s and many audiences will be glad to be reminded of this. He was admired by Margaret Thatcher. He had dialogue meetings with Ronald Reagan in Iceland. He campaigned against nuclear weapons. The film includes testimony from the Hungarian Prime Minister of the time who opened up Gorbachev’s eyes to how small country could be prosperous, interviews with Reagan and Bush advisers, George Shultz and James Baker, German political advisers.
Then the visuals of citizens of the Baltic countries forming a continuous line of personal protest, of the cutting of the barbed wire on the Austrian border then, of course, the demolishing of the Berlin Wall.
So, admiration for corporate of and sharing his disappointment of how he was overturned by the coup, signed his resignation, lived to see a European world different from what he hoped for.
And, we realise that this is not the kind of world we live in now, regrettably so.
Rialto Released January 16th.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.