Werner Herzog has made so many excellent documentaries (Into the Abyss, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World, Grizzly Man, Lessons of Darkness, etc.) that his brand name on a non-fiction film is something of a guarantee — we're going to take an idiosyncratic look at one tiny corner of this big, gorgeous, frightening world while Uncle Werner holds our hand and explains things in his reassuring Bavarian drawl. It'll be quirky and a little scary and rapturous all at the same time.
The director's "latest" is actually a 2010 German production, made for Russian TV by filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov, then recut by Herzog's ace editor Joe Bini, with a new English-language voiceover written by Herzog and his son, Rudolph, and intoned by the man himself – about a group of extreme outdoorsfolk and how they thrive in the inhospitable taiga of Northern Siberia. For all intents and purposes, it's a prime chunk of Herzog-iana, light on the advocacy and heavy on the other-worldliness of life on Earth.
The village of Bakhtia sits on the Yenisei River in the Siberian taiga (or coniferous boreal forest), a vast sub-Arctic ecosystem larger than the continental United States. No roads or train lines traverse the region. Bakhtia, a community of three hundred, is reachable only by helicopter or boat, and is completely isolated during the long winter when the north-flowing Yenisei freezes solid. In Bakhtia there are no software engineers, marketing consultants, or baristas. Also, no telephone, running water, or medical aid. And yet residents like Genadiy, Anatoly, and Mikhail, three of the doc's subjects, and their families make a living there in a way that prompts Herzog to declare them "happy people."
Industry and perseverance are the key concepts, according to Herzog. Virtually the entire year's activities are built around the cruel winter, when the landscape is buried in snow and temperatures drop below -50° F. Most of the basic tools are made by hand in traditional fashion. "A good wedge is a man's savior," says Genadiy, to which he could add a loyal dog, ubiquitous at a hunter's side. By the time May 1 arrives as the official end of winter, the trappers, hunters, and fishermen of Bakhtia are busy making skis, insulating cabins, gathering pine nuts, fishing for pike (to feed both humans and dogs), shooting ducks, avoiding gregarious bears (they hibernate in late autumn), and fighting off clouds of mosquitoes with birch bark tar repellant. They essentially work all year preparing to survive the cold.
Living alongside the Russian Siberians are the indigenous Ket people, generally a morose-looking bunch, dazed by vodka and subsisting on day labor. One of the Kets considers himself the last to be able to make a dugout canoe from scratch — traditional crafts are dying out, largely because of the Kets' problems with alcohol. Still, they retain a reverence for their traditional protective-spirit dolls.
The documentary shifts into high gear in autumn, when the trappers of Bakhtia and their dogs depart for the woods to run their networks of traps all winter. A string of hundreds of traps requires a string of huts, each within a day's walking distance, that must also be maintained if the trapper is to stay alive through the night. We learn about the koolyomka, a simple but effective short wooden tower with a heavy lid/roof under which dangles the bait. When a curious varmint (sable, ermine, fox, etc., for the lucrative fur market) climbs up over a sturdy branch to grab the bait, the lid slams down and kills the critter bloodlessly — the trapper finds it frozen stiff. (The koolyomka does its job without steel, which a sable will avoid.) In one of the film's most exciting scenes, a trapper and his dog flush a sable out of his hollow-log hiding place. As Genadiy observes, "Here, it's about who outsmarts whom."
In order to capture the daily labors of these rugged individuals, Vasyukov and his four-man crew had to face basically the same hardships as the trappers — i.e., things that would give Bear Grylls second thoughts. As always, Herzog's narration puts their struggles into a cosmic perspective. In common with the South Pole, the Alaskan wilderness, the Andes, various deserts, the prehistoric caves of southern France, and the Thai jungle, the Siberian taiga is breathtakingly beautiful and simultaneously treacherous, a paradox that obviously delights the filmmaker. We're ready to forgive Herzog for not snowshoeing through the shoulder-deep drifts himself. He and Vasyukov make a fine team, even by remote control. Klaus Badelt's music score, recorded in China and Santa Monica, puts the definitive international stamp on Happy People. The film has been out on home video for awhile, but this theatrical release gives us the chance to visit the taiga via the big screen. Take it.