Despite his very familiar and famous birthmark, Gorbachev is almost unrecognisable from the man who made sweeping changes in the Soviet Union in the eighties to the man who sits before Werner Herzog. He’s gained a few extra pounds over the years, dropped the glasses and looks more like an adoring grandfather, ironic giving at some point he was one of the most feared men in the height of the cold war. Herzog and co-director Singer are almost giddy and infatuated to meet the man who led the end of the cold war and re-unification of Germany. The documentary centres around a series of interviews between Herzog and Gorbachev among some of the key international political figures he met and cooperated with in leading the change.
After the formality of meeting Gorbachev and greeting him with a birthday present of sugar free chocolate, Gorbachev has diabetes, Herzog opening quip is that Gorbachev must have had a bad first impression of the Germans, as a child of the second world war. To the contrary, Gorbachev tells an anecdote that the first impression he had of Germans was that of some neighbours who were German bakers. It’s an answer that is consistent in answering questions with surprising honesty but also against some of the assumptions Herzog was holding. Gorbachev’s answers are delivered slowly, almost with dramatic affect, less a performance but just a consequence of his age. But for all his seniority, his memory is as clear as day.
The film tells of Gorbachev’s rise to power from his childhood as a peasant and son of a father who grew and harvested crops for the region. His father receiving a decorated honour from the Soviet Order for his service, with which he shared with his son Michail who worked alongside his father producing a record number of crops. Gorbachev would go on to study law, it was as a student where he would meet his beloved wife Raisa Titarenko. A proud communist party member he quickly rose the ranks despite his comparative younger age to his senior high ranking comrades. Gorbachev’s achievements in office were well noticed, building up a reputation for someone who was very astute but willing to learn as to how to change the system for the better of the Union. In the single party union, the party members have to wait in line before the leader falls to their death. Herzog uses archive footage that demonstrates the absurdity of old men who are not physically fit to stand up but still sworn into leading an empire. The succession of state funeral after state funeral in quick succession is comical to say the least.
Once sworn into power, the world powers act with caution with mixed emotions in the American cabinet as to whether Gorbachev is someone they can cooperate with. With the disaster of Chernobyl, Gorbachev’s drive for change to decentralise power and call on the world to end nuclear weapons saw him make sweeping changes. Interviews with some of the key political figures illustrate what a radical Gorbachev was compared to his former soviet leaders. Viewed as someone more interested in creating genuine change and harmony over personal greed seems as radical today as it was back then. Which is part of the tragedy befallen upon Gorbachev. By moving Russia away from a one state party to a democracy saw him lose to Boris Yelsin. A career politician who took a lot of advantages during the attempted military coup that saw Gorbachev temporarily removed from office.
Gorbachev cuts a tragic figure. As Herzog states, he has become an isolated figure, particularly after the death of his beloved wife in 1999. But also frustrated that the progress and changes he sought to make are in reverse with current political leaders using aggression with each other. As a bio documentary, Gorbachev is a fascinating historical figure and his story seems more relevant today with the cold war climate returning. As a film it’s a bit simplistic with talking heads blended with archive footage. No real hard questions are asked by Herzog and his fondness for his subject blur the lines of Herzog being an objective observer. Thus the film is absent of any shock factor. As it has been made for the History Channel, it might not gain a cinematic release, which in someways would only add to the tragedy of Gorbachev’s legacy, whose impact on the world today is unquestionable. Cinematically a bit plain but still feels like essential viewing.