Bakhta, a village in the geographic center of the Siberian taiga, has a population of 300. It’s accessible only by helicopter or, during those months when the Yenisei River isn’t frozen, by boat. If it weren’t for the occasional sight of one of those helicopters or a snowmobile, Bakhta could be in the 19th century or earlier. It’s almost as far away in time as it is in space. How could Werner Herzog, foremost film master of the brute exotic, resist? If the place didn’t exist, he’d have had to invent it.
Since it does exist, he directed this documentary, with Dmitry Vasyukov. “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” (“taiga” is the ecological term for northern evergreen forests) focuses on several fur trappers. “Happy” isn’t meant ironically. Herzog, who narrates, clearly loves, and envies, the trappers’ elemental existence and connection to nature. “Continuing his rounds on skis,” Herzog says of one of his subjects, “he resembles prehistoric man from a distant ice age.” He doesn’t really, but Herzog certainly enjoys thinking he does — and the way he says it, it almost sounds plausible.
Oh, that Herzog voice! Those Teutonic intonations are their own special effect, as distinctive (and increasingly self-parodic) as Rod Serling’s used to be. The comparison fits, actually. The world has always been Herzog’s twilight zone, sometimes populated by Klaus Kinski characters, more often by real people.
The voice’s presence is a bit misleading. It overpoweringly declares Herzog’s involvement, and the documentary’s setting is very much up his alley (assuming that alley works as a synonym for Weltanschauung). But one wonders to what extent this is Vasyukov’s project. “Happy People” lacks Herzog’s usual obsessiveness and intensity.
In some ways this is good. The film has a relaxed, matter-of-fact feel. There are many (many) ways to describe Werner Herzog and his films. “Matter-of-fact” is not one of them. That can come as a relief.
In some ways this is bad. The documentary is so (relatively) upbeat about life in the taiga that one could imagine Vladimir Putin putting it on every Russian’s Netflixski queue. Natural beauty abounds, yes. Shots of ice breaking up in the Yenisei with the arrival of spring are stunning. You can see the appeal of the trappers’ lives for someone with Herzog’s atavistic streak. But there’s also an unmistakable grimness and claustral quality to these men’s lives that the documentary either ignores or glosses over. Instead, it flirts with sentimentality, refusing to acknowledge that in the taiga the only way for man to be in nature is to violate it.
What may be best about “Happy People” is its love of tradecraft. Trappers straddle a technological present (snowmobiles, outboard motors, chainsaws) and timeless tradition. “A good craftsman will make good skis using good wood,” announces one of the film’s subjects. In addition to skis, we see them make a dugout canoe and boil sheets of birch bark for mosquito repellent (mosquitoes can be even more of a problem than bears). And there are multiple scenes devoted to dealings with dogs. “You are no hunter without a dog,” one of the trappers says. “Happy People” would be a lesser thing without the presence of these beautiful, noble animals.