“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”: True Cinematic Pleasure

So this is Werner Herzog phoning it in: cutting down another director's film from four hours to one-and-a-half, ruminating on the imagery at hand, and slapping on his own trademark mad-Teuton narration. Not that we're complaining. Director Dmitry Vasyukov's original project, a nature documentary for Russian TV, did the legwork of dwelling at length in a remote Siberian village of some 300 souls who, says Herzog, “live by their own rules, but according to the dignity of nature.” With the seasons imposing a narrative, Herzog's voiceover imposes a theme, idealizing the pre-modern purity of the villagers' survivalism. This suits the innately cinematic pleasure of watching resourceful people make stuff from scratch amid stunning scenery. One wizened trapper, habituated to wintering within his allotted 1,500 square kilometers with only a dog for company, speaks sensibly of centuries-old skills, and what this man can do with just a hatchet certainly entitles him to the occasional use of chainsaw or snowmobile. In rare moments of repose he looks like a cover portrait on the paperback of some great Russian novel, reminding us that what we're seeing here is a very deep culture indeed. Self-reliance is of its essence, but it doesn't hurt to appreciate the cooperation — Vasyukov's visitation plus Herzog's meditation — by which its chroniclers have shared it with the rest of us.

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