About a month from now, on 29 October, his film Meeting Gorbachev (2018), co-directed with André Singer (also attending), will open the 61st edition of Germany’s oldest documentary and animated film festival. DOK Leipzig is actually one of the world’s longest-running film fests, and the one I’ve been to the most times. So I can recommend it, because many others keep coming back year after year, and I myself have never been disappointed.
You may have heard of Werner Herzog in relation to his unflinching, groundbreaking films. For instance, his Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu – with the wild acting genius of his “best friend” Klaus Kinski – and the more recent docs Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss. DOK Fest is paying homage to the 76-year-old director for his contributions to cinema, and its organizers are beyond excited to have him onboard. The other director being paid tribute to is 66-year-old Ruth Beckermann, a founder of Austria’s independent film scene, and famous for her road movies, biographical films and cinematic essays exploring the Jewish history of Austria and other topics.
Ralph Eue, DOK Leipzig’s programmer, says Werner Herzog’s Meeting Gorbachev “lends virtually global resonance to this year’s festival motto ‘Demand the Impossible!’” It’s a particularly interesting topic to kick off the fest with, given the DOK’s origins and history, and Leipzig’s complicated relationship with its own GDR past and Soviet influence. Simultaneously, the fest’s organizers say the films from this year’s highlighted country, Lithuania, focus on capturing “the sense of longing for independence from the Soviet Union.”
I’m curious to see the audience’s reaction to the Werner Herzog documentary, and what kinds of questions they will ask him regarding “Meeting Gorbachev.”
The Russian Mikhail Gorbachev, now 87 years old, was the Soviet Union’s eighth and final leader. His reforms are credited with greatly contributing to the end of the Cold War and of the USSR. The festival’s organizers give us a glimpse into the documentary it will show on him:
“’Meeting Gorbachev’ aims to provide answers for the generations that witnessed and experienced Gorbachev’s policies and their effects first-hand, but also for young individuals who now find themselves living in another reality and are only familiar with the Cold War from history books and stories. In the film, Herzog and Gorbachev sit together in the former’s Moscow office, engaging in intense conversations about the past and the winding path of history. Time and again their attention returns to the reunification of Germany. The two men [address] the difficulties and successes that the former President of the USSR was met with during his tenure. Gorbachev also speaks very openly about the mistakes that he made at the time, about decisions that he might approach differently from today’s perspective [as well as about current events involving the bipolarizing world powers].”
Giving the doc 3.5 stars, IndieWire reflects: “It’s the same technique the filmmaker used to portray Dieter Dengler, the Woodcarver Steiner, and Timothy Treadwell, twisting their lives (and their deaths) into haunting stories about the beauty of demented men and the impossible burden of their dreams.” A review from Variety portrays Herzog the interviewer as in “unusually obsequious, almost fanboyish form, his (very natural) admiration for Gorbachev dulling the edge of his more eccentric instincts.” On the other hand, The Playlist says “Herzog never balks at asking the tough questions. He meets his match in Gorbachev, who, despite being at the twilight of his life, still has a witty sense of humor and the sharpest memory for his historical bouts with not just the Americans, but the inner enemies of his own confederation.”
I plan to go see it for myself and make up my own mind. Wouldn’t want to miss that chance.
DOK Leipzig’s opening ceremony and screening will take place on Monday, 29 October 2018, at CineStar 8 (invitation-only). A live stream of the event will be shown to the public in CineStar 6. Also, there will be a free public screening of Meeting Gorbachev inside the Eastern hall of Leipzig’s central railway station. Open a MyDOK online account to have access to festival tickets and other info. The festival program comes out on 10 October.
Cover shot: Werner Herzog portrait. (© Zhu Jingjing)