In “Meeting Gorbachev,” Werner Herzog and André Singer’s documentary about the former Soviet leader, Vladimir Putin appears just once. It’s in a snippet of news footage of Raisa Gorbachev’s funeral. Even in this brief glimpse, that lean-and-hungry look is unmistakable. Putin’s otherwise not seen, his name unmentioned.
In a sense, though, he’s almost as much of a presence in the film as the man in the title is. Putin, after all, has done to Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy what Gorbachev did to that of Lenin and Stalin. When Gorbachev says at one point in the documentary “I feel sorry for my own people,” you know its not the Russian winter he’s talking about.
The documentary is traditional enough. Much of it consists of Gorbachev (speaking Russian, with subtitles) being interviewed last year by Herzog (speaking English, with those spooky-enchanting Teutonic tones). Herzog also provides a voiceover. He has many talents; interviewing is not among them. Gorbachev tends to speak in banalities, in an elderly-statesman way. That’s all right: Being an elderly statesman, he’s entitled. He retains an impressive redoubtability, as well as a capacity to surprise. In the documentary’s most moving sequence, he recites a Lermontov poem, in an almost toneless voice.
Herzog and Singer draw on archival and news footage. Watching Gorbachev receive a medal from a doddering Leonid Brezhnev is like seeing a Politburo Madame Tussaud’s being sized up by a visitor from the future. The documentary revisits Chernobyl, the Reykjavik summit, perestroika and glasnost. Gorbachev joins with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to limit and reduce nuclear arms. He doesn’t try to prevent the fall of the Iron Curtain and accepts German reunification. He survives the August 1991 attempted coup against him, but resigns at the end of that year, with the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Several talking heads appear, including George Shultz, James Baker, and Lech Walesa. Tellingly, none of the interviewees is Russian. A running theme is that many Russians consider Gorbachev a traitor. “A tragic figure” Herzog calls him.
That earlier point about “traditional enough” bears repeating. Herzog’s forays into nonfiction, no less than his fictional films, tend to go their own crazed way. That’s appropriate when documenting someone killed by bears (“Grizzly Man,” 2005), scientists in Antarctica (“Encounters at the End of the World,” 2007), inhabitants of Siberia (“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” 2010), or people fascinated by volcanoes (“Into the Inferno,” 2016). Herzog is definitely a fiery-furnace sort of guy.
As a filmmaker, he has had two abiding subjects: obsession and human limitation. Usually, nature is the limitation that obsession bumps up against. Here it’s society, and obsession is nowhere to be seen. Part of Herzog’s wonderment at Gorbachev — “one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century,” he says — surely has to do with such a rational, placid-appearing man not just surmounting insuperable limits but doing so with world-historical impact.
The figure seen in “Meeting Gorbachev” has put on a lot of weight. Back in the ’80s, he looked well fed. Now he looks unhealthy. We learn that Gorbachev suffers from diabetes, and one of the interview sessions takes place only days after he’s gotten out of the hospital. Gorbachev seems diminished, even more than one would expect with a man who’s now 88. He’s not a compelling presence. He never was, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable. A few glimpses of Boris Yeltsin in new footage from 1991 make this point. Now there was a compelling figure — a different sort of grizzly man. “People like politicians like Yeltsin,” Gorbachev says, one of the few times he talks in specifics. He pauses. “The restless type.” Restless Gorbachev was not — or dynamic, or charismatic. Not that that kept him from changing the world.
Directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer. Written by Herzog. At Kendall Square. 91 minutes. Unrated. In English, Russian, and German, with subtitles.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.