Meeting Gorbachev, directed by Werner Herzog and André Singer, is a humanising account of the life of Mikhail Gorbachev, the final General Secretary of the USSR. The film consists of extensive archival material and three interviews with Gorbachev, which were conducted by Herzog himself over six months. Through their documentary, Herzog and Singer commemorate Gorbachev’s most remarkable achievements: negotiations with the USA to reduce nuclear weapons, the cessation of Soviet control of Eastern Europe, the re-unification of Germany, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. The documentary provides touching and timely access into the life and outlook of a remarkable politician. Meeting Gorbachev will be officially released in the UK on 8th November 2019, which coincides with the 30th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The on-screen relationship between Herzog and Gorbachev during interviews is striking. Herzog expresses his admiration and respect for Gorbachev and his politics, particularly his role in the re-unification of Germany. The latter reciprocates with warm openness and thoughtful deliberation over his responses. Herzog does not hesitate in bringing up the historical tensions between their nations, commenting that the first German whom Gorbachev met probably wanted to kill him. Far from agreeing, Gorbachev recalled his memories of the sweet-smelling gingerbread at his grandfather’s German neighbours’ sweet shop in the village of Privolnoye. This early moment in the documentary sets the scene for the good-natured and reflective conversations that ensue, which deal as much with the present as the past. Between interviews, Herzog takes the viewer on a narrated archival journey through Gorbachev’s early life in Privolnoye, his education, his political career, his historical achievements, his marriage and his legacy across nations. This documentary is more than the story of Gorbachev’s life. It is an ode to everything that made Gorbachev ‘different’ from previous Soviet leaders and current-day political leaders, not only in terms of his political approach, but in terms of his outlook, vision and values.
Throughout the documentary, prominent political figures from Europe and beyond offer their own insights into Gorbachev’s role in shaping modern Europe, and suggest certain lessons that we can learn from him. The voices of George Shultz, Margaret Thatcher, Milkós Németh, James A. Baker III and Horst Telschik echo Herzog’s own view that Gorbachev was different in substance, extremely competent, and always focused on the job at hand. Miklos Németh, who was Prime Minister of Hungary from 1988, recalled Gorbachev’s visits to Hungary. In contrast to Brezhnev, who used to make elaborate requests for Hungarian-tailored hunting suits and gifts, Gorbachev arrived with his investigative hat on, full of questions about how Hungary was doing so well in production. At a time when the USSR was in decline and grave errors were being made in centralised planning, Gorbachev was reaching out to other countries to see how they were managing to fare better. A remarkable piece of footage shows Margaret Thatcher stating that she felt she could do business with Gorbachev. She declared her respect for his resolute ideological beliefs, which were as firm as her own, despite being at the opposite end of the spectrum. While Thatcher didn’t share Gorbachev’s anti-nuclear stance, her willingness to cooperate with him is reflective of the tumultuous breath of fresh air that Gorbachev brought to the Soviet Union and the international stage.
The documentary places strong emphasis on Gorbachev’s relationship with Ronald Reagan and their ground-breaking discussions about nuclear disarmament. The documentary cleverly compares the original footage of their famous handshake at the 1986 summit in Reykjavik with footage of modern-day tourists re-enacting this moment in history for the camera. The viewer is encouraged to consider what makes nuclear weapons so persistent today, and whether current-day politicians could ever execute the level of nuclear disarmament that Gorbachev and Reagan had once hoped for. One of Gorbachev’s most memorable observations during the interviews is that Cold War cannot be a form of international relations, since those who cannot discuss and cooperate should just leave politics. He reflected that more openness is required between Russia and the USA to overcome present-day challenges. The documentary certainly appears determined to place this message at the forefront of our minds.
The documentary paints the final Soviet leader as a genuine, compassionate socialist with a somewhat tragic legacy. For his part, Horst Telschik remarked that it is deeply regrettable that Gorbachev was not granted the future of the Soviet Union and the ‘Common European Home’. Near the end of the third interview, Gorbachev shed a tear as he lamented his own regrets about the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the democracy that he was unable to finish building before the ‘forces’ took control. We hesitate between amusement and pensiveness when Werner asks Gorbachev what he would like his tombstone to read, to which he replies, ‘We tried’.
Werner and Singer’s Meeting Gorbachev is thought-provoking, accessible and extremely emotive, with a dash of tasteful humour. It provides unrivalled insight into the mind of a leader who was committed to peace-building, as well as giving a coherent account of the extraordinary events that took place across Europe as the Iron Curtain was torn down. Meeting Gorbachev should be essential viewing for certain present-day politicians who need a gentle push back onto the path towards truly democratic governance.