Happy People: A Year in the Taiga
Having just re-watched Nanook of the North)recently, Herzog's Happy People revisits people who live hand-to-mouth in a place where the summers last about as long as a Twitter trend and the winters determine your every action in life. We meet our central characters with a much more serious tone than we met Nanook and his family almost one hundred years ago. Instead of Canada, however, they subside in Siberia with semioccasional modern conveniences (chainsaws and snowmobiles are all that come to mind). The landscapes sometimes remind me of the bleak Wisconsin winters of Stroszek and other times mosquito-infested shots from Grizzly Man.
More importantly, however, is the way the camera reads their faces. These are mostly trappers, men of small stature and tall on wisdom. This is not the stuff of John Colter from The Lewis and Clark Journals or some tough guy with a big truck that defines his manhood-- his existence-- with the fact that he shoots mammals and will show you pictures on his Android if you give him five seconds to get started. No, these are a dying thread of man's survival through the last Ice Age. You see it in their eyes. You catch glimpses of what Elizabeth Gilbert saw in Eustace Conway when she wrote The Last American Man. This is the core of what it means for a man to a man and his dog to do what it takes to not die in conditions that would undoubtedly kill most everyone very quickly. And their faces! Their faces show a happy people. They walk a tightrope between life and death and they do not show fear or disappointment in the world.
This point comes to a climax as Dmitry, our protagonist-trapper, comes to check on one of his trapping sheds late in the winter day, as daylight is slipping away, only to find that a tree has fallen on it and he much now expend thousands of calories-worth of effort to quickly mend the cabin enough to sleep in it that evening. In just about any other film ever made, had this situation arisen, the character would throw a conniption-fit, try to deal with the situation by raising the drama level of the moment (see the truly terrible The Grey)for a fictional example), and that very conflict would draw the viewers in closer (making producers smile with dollar signs). But in this film, Dmitry sucks it up, does the backbreaking work necessary to survive, and shows us a true (Happy People?) nature to himself.
Other films show similar themes and are worth checking out. From the aforementioned Nanook of the North (a film where the climax is building an igloo!) to Dick Proenneke Alone in the Wilderness's 1968 home films of his survival in Alaska with its patient shots of how he built his tools and home. Yet there's something more straightforward and honest about Herzog's depiction of how the sable traps are made and checked all winter long. He shows us how to make skis and make canoes. The ice is treated as a flexible tool depending on what Dmitry wants to do with it. At times he's Van Gogh working that river as his palette. The water, slush, ice, rocks, and other pieces come together to help him paint his way of living. He does things his own way (shoots pike on the line) and has trained his dog to follow him over 100 miles to the Christmas celebration by running on the ice.
This may be Herzog's most honest and straightforward documentary to date. Does that mean you'll like it the most? Probably not. This is a simple film about simple people. They are free and Herzog does them justice by letting them be as free as possible as he shows a year of their lives.