“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” - Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov (2011)

Werner Herzog’s documentary film Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2011) is his adaptation of Dmitry Vasyukov’s four-hour mini-series of the same name that was made for Russian television.  It concerns the lives of some animal trappers in the small Siberian town of Bakhta on the Yenisei River.  Vasyukov’s original film was apparently an ethnographic record of these people over the course of a year, and we could say that Herzog’s recompilation of this material is similarly ethnographic. But Herzog is one of those documentarians, most commonly found in Europe, who incorporates his or her own personal perspective into what is presented. In Herzog’s case it is usually a matter of adding his singularly existentialist tone to the account, the focus of which I have commented on previously [1]: 
“[Herzog] is fascinated with people who live at the extreme edges of human existence and who are exploring or experiencing what it is like to step beyond the boundaries of our comfortable civilized world.”
Here in Happy People, we are dealing with animal trappers whose home base in Bakhta is so remote that it can only be reached from the outside by helicopter or boat (and that latter option is closed off in the winter when the Yenisei River is frozen over).  From there, these trappers head off in the winter into further isolation – the Siberian wilderness where for months at a time they will be alone and cut off from any assistance as they search for their prey.  These are the kind of people that fascinate Herzog.

However, there is a subtlety to the way Herzog presents his extreme subjects.  There is little in the way of any doctrinaire disquisition describing Herzog’s point of view.   Instead, Herzog often lets the visual images tell much of the story, which is sprinkled with his characteristically quiet and even-toned, but oddly emphatic, voice-over commentary [2]. 

The film has four parts, corresponding to the four seasons, and its opening section is in the Spring. We are introduced to the town of Bakhta situated on the 5,500km long Yenisei River, which in their region of central Siberia has been frozen over during the winter and is just starting to turn to slush. Given the town’s relative isolation, the residents of the town are mostly self-sufficient. The indigenous Ket people, who now only number about 1,500, are shown carving their own canoes out of large tree trunks, an ancient skill.

For the most part, though, the people shown are ethnic Russians, and there is a particular focus on one sturdy animal trapper, Gennady Soloviev.  These people build their own huts, make their own skis (an essential transportation device), and concoct their own mosquito repellent (smelly, but also essential). 

They do all their work with basic hand tools  – axes, wedges, saws, and wood planes.  They don’t have power tools.  But they do have guns.  The trappers, though, mostly catch their prey by hand-crafting elaborate, camouflaged traps, at the center of which are steel leg-hold traps.  So their hunting and trapping practices have been largely unchanged over the past hundred years.

All this hand-craftsmanship not only makes these trappers self-sufficient, it gives them an acute sense of their own self-sufficiency, at least for the case of our center of focalization, Gennady Soloviev.  And the self-sufficiency gives them a sense of freedom and independence.  They can go out into the forests and do whatever they want, unencumbered by the restrictions of conventional society.  This is what presumably makes them “happy people”.

There might be a suggestion here that the trappers out there in the wilderness achieve some kind of mystical oneness with Nature, and that it is the source of their “happiness”.  But I would say no, and I don’t think Herzog would look at things this way, either.  Nature, for Herzog, is not something with which one can achieve oneness.  During the filmmaking of his Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the South American jungle, Herzog had this to say about Nature [3,4]:
“I don’t see [the jungle] so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing. They just screech in pain.”
. . .
“There is a harmony [in nature] . . . it is a harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.”
In fact what the trappers treasure is their independence.  But they are not in a state of oneness with their surroundings, and instead what they participate in is this seething maelstrom of “collective murder”.  Their prey, which are  primarily sables that they capture, kill and eventually sell for the valuable fur, are their primary adversaries.  And the trappers delight in the psychological bounty of their conquests over their helpless adversaries.

Even their faithful hunting dogs, which are their only companions when the trappers are out there in the wildness, are not seen as equal comrades.  For example, in order to train his young hunting dogs not to steal the bait from the traps he sets, Soloviev puts them in a painful leg-hold trap for some time, so that the dog will come to see the trap as a source of misery and pain.  The dog is thus not seen compassionately and is merely seen by the trapper as another tool to be used in his work.

In fact I doubt that happiness is a mental state that Herzog sees as primary in connection with these trappers.  The word “happy” in the name of the film was something that Herzog inherited from Dmitry Vasyukov’s mini-series, and he was probably forced to continue with it.  Herzog, himself, has expressed, even relatively recently, a disconnection from the idea of happiness [5]:
 "I have never been one of those who cares about happiness. Happiness is a strange notion. I am just not made for it. It has never been a goal of mine; I do not think in those terms.”
It is something else that Herzog has always seen in the people he has chosen as his subjects to film.  It is a sense of existential loneliness and personal struggle with the world, itself.  Even forty years ago in his documentary The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) about a death-defying sky flier, Herzog has his protagonist say near the end of the film [6]:
   “I should be all alone in this world
    Me, Steiner and no other living being.
    No sun, no culture; I , naked on a high rock
    No storm, no snow, no banks, no money
    No time and no breath.
    Then, finally, I would not be afraid anymore.”
The final section of Happy People: A Year in the Taiga covers the winter season, when the trappers set out alone in search of their kill.  They are in their chosen world of self-satisfying struggle.

There are almost no women shown in this film, although the trappers, including Gennady Soloviev, are apparently married and have families.  And so there seems to be no place for love in the ego-dominated taiga world shown in this film.  That is an essential aspect of true happiness that is missing here.
★★★

Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “Encounters at the End of the World - Werner Herzog (2007)”, The Film Sufi, (9 August 2009).  
  2. See:
  3. from Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) about the shooting of Fitzcarraldo (1982).  
  4. See also: Werner Herzog, “24 Wonderfully Bonkers Werner Herzog Quotes”, (Compiled by Nico Lang), Thought Catalog, (24 April 2013).   
  5. Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin, Herzog on Herzog: Conversations with Paul Cronin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (2003).
  6. Werner Herzog, “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth”, Moira Weigel (trans.), Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Winter 2010), pp. 1-12.

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