Baby, It's Cold Outside
Opening theatrically at the height of the Northeast’s cold snap, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga makes outside New York seem tropical by comparison. His humorless accented monotone still a liability, co-director -executive producer Werner Herzog narrates his script co-written with son Rudolph, hammering home the Romantic notion of the noble few who reject modernity in confronting, respecting and loving a hostile sometimes bountiful Nature.
Happy -- yes, in being unfamiliar with and therefore undesirous of the world’s goodies; doomed to disappear to little fanfare; and worthy of being recorded for the interests of “salvage ethnologists” and armchair television adventurers. But whether these Russian and Ket fishermen and hunter-trappers would bear scrutiny for the documentary’s original four hours, is moot.
Having incorporated another’s footage within his own -- Timothy Treadwell’s, in Grizzly Man -- Herzog now condenses four one-hour sections, shot by that number of cameramen under Dimitry Vasylukov, listed as “co-director.” A Skype call to the Russian elicited immediate permission and complete artistic control.
Thus, “though I had the feeling I should spend the whole year with them,” the writer, director, producer and sometime actor and opera director did not set physical foot in the Taiga, a partly Arctic Circle ecosystem comprising much of Canada, northern Europe and Eurasia and, here, particularly Siberia, a colossal landmass half again bigger than the United States.
Itself divided into four, seasonal sections, the re-edited, re-scored and re-mixed travelogue opens with “Spring,” during the four months when helicopters or Yenisei River boats can make it to far north Bakhtia village, population three hundred, cut off the two-thirds rest of the year and without police, government, taxes, telephones and running water.
Intense cold inhibiting organic decomposition, the thin soil lacks nutrients and, even with twenty hours’ daily summer sun, only the hardiest of crops can be raised in this area of conifer growth. In small compensation, the black-and-white landscape offers plenty in its waters and, for those with the stamina and skill, its forests. The ninety-minute film concentrates on a couple hunter-trappers, as they prepare during relative warmth for the eight harsh months that allow them and their families and community to survive.
These men illustrate and explain the father-to-son methods that are the prop of their winter activities. Felled trunks are split only with wedges, handmade skis tempered and bent with fire, boats adzed out and smoothed, main and subsidiary huts built in hunting forests where traps are baited and set and provisions stored out of bears’ reach.
Proud but not boastful of their work and of the traditions they sense are disappearing, they scorn those who kill animals for money alone and would drive species away or into extinction. Not a naturally garrulous soul, Gennady Soloviev also reflects on the nurture of good hunting dogs, the death of one of whom he mourns.
In the bleached hamlet and surrounding woods, the hunters depend on age-old skills, only their snowmobiles, outboard motors, some metal tools and firearms imported from the outside modern world they do not despise but in which they choose not to live. Indeed, they return to town and family only once during the winter, for a few days around Epiphany, “Little Christmas,” its communal celebrations filmed but not dwelt on.
A stated purpose to “preserve this passing of the old generation . . . at once so beautiful, severe and unselfish,” is a laudable one. Left to speak few words for themselves, the subjects project a stoic dignity, and there is none of the common cutesy anthropomorphization. However, this hour-and-a-half is too quietly uneventful for the big screen and is burdened narrationally with Western-civilization pomposity on the purity of unencumbered subsistence life and the sacrosanctity of Nature. At the same time that the world admired him in film and popular song, real-life Nanook was coughing up blood and dying.
(Released by Music Box Films; not rated by MPAA.)