Thanks to the Goethe-Institut Belgium every year three of the most important German Filmfestivals make a stopover in Brussels, one of them DOK Leipzig on June 13th in BOZAR Cinema.
DOK Leipzig is one of the leading festivals for documentary and animated film. The festival, being the first in the world to combine these two genres, is built on more than 60 years of history and tradition. The festival is a celebration of films with the highest artistic and innovative approaches to storytelling, embodying our values of peace, tolerance, human dignity and freedom of expression.
Werner Herzog meeting Mikhail Gorbachev opens a fresh door to some of the most significant happenings of the late 20th Century from nuclear disarmament to the unification of Germany. It also puts into perspective today’s era of populist political leadership. Herzog and Gorbachev meet three times over a six- month period, and although the last President of the Soviet Union is an ailing man, his mind is sharp. His warmth and humour, and Herzog’s ability to tackle unexpected and personal areas of his life, make the encounters engaging, insightful, moving and important.
Meeting Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev three times over a six-month period was a fascinating and enlightening experience. I was anxious not to film a biography of him but to try to understand the character of such an important figure. Here was a man who changed the course of the twentieth century and whose actions transformed the world I grew up in; yet in Moscow, I found a somewhat tragic and lonely figure, surrounded by people who blamed him for the loss of the Soviet Union and for not fulfilling the promises of perestroika and glasnost that he had hoped would improve their lives. Our conversations were frank, and wide-ranging, from his anger over the lack of progress over nuclear arms reduction that he had initiated with Ronald Reagan to personal tragedies such as the loss of his beloved wife Raisa in 1999. Although Mikhail Sergeyevich was not a physically well man, his intelligence, charisma and sense of purpose were still sharp and illuminating and it was a pleasure to have been able to meet such a charismatic, genuine and significant giant of the 20th century.
When agreeing with MDR (the German ARD Channel) to make a film about the last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, the filmmaker in me asked how we could create a narrative that was engaging, unique and attractive to a new generation who had little experience or knowledge of the ‘Gorbachev Years’ and the Cold War? Having collaborated with Werner Herzog over a thirty year period, I thought that his inimitable insights might provide the key. I was therefore delighted when he agreed to participate, co-direct and conduct the interviews with the ailing ex-Soviet leader. It worked wonderfully. There was a great bond between the two men and Werner was able to ask questions other interviewers would not have dreamt of. “What would you like inscribed on your gravestone?” He asked. “ We tried”, Gorbachev replied. “I am a German, and the first German you met you probably wanted to shoot” Werner says referring to the hatred between Russia and Germany stemming from World War 11.
“NO” said Gorbachev, and relayed how as a boy nearby Germans made wonderful biscuits in the shape of rabbits that made the young Gorbachev really like Germans!! We made a film that was deliberately not a stereotype history documentary. Instead of detailing all the events of the 1980s and 90s we followed the personal story seen through Gorbachev’s eyes enabling us to expose the humanity behind political characters that shaped the end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany and the attempts to end nuclear proliferation.
Eventually Gorbachev failed in his attempts to fully reform the old Soviet Union, but the contrast between what is happening in the world now and what he was confronting in the 1980s is dramatic. Whilst making the film we were moved by the loneliness of the man who tackled the impossible and is regarded today by many Russians as the person responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Empire. He is now an ailing 87 year old figure living in isolation in Moscow but still has lessons he wants to give the world and which he relayed to Werner in his interview – particularly about the dangers of nuclear weaponry which he sees with alarm going in the opposite direction to what he and Ronald Reagan fought for thirty years ago. We both felt this was a man still worth listening to and we were privileged to hear his insights and to be able to share them in this film.