“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” Not rated, 1:34, opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Three stars (out of four).
You can tell a lot about a person by who they envy. That filmmaker Werner Herzog would look at the subjects of his new documentary “Happy People” with something approaching jealousy says a lot about the man.
Because, as rough as you think it might be living in Siberia, the reality is even harsher. The film looks at the residents of a small village in the snow-smothered region that’s 1.5 times the size of the United States. In the summer, the landscape is beautiful but inhospitable. In winter, the 300 or so residents are cut off entirely from civilization, and had better hope they’ve properly prepared for the months of isolation and survival.
In many ways, life for these denizens hasn’t changed in the last century. While modern conveniences like snowmobiles and chainsaws are employed, they do many things the way their ancestors did — they build traps the same way, they carve boats and skis out of trees. Dogs are constant — sometimes sole — companions, but they are work animals, not pets. When a snowmobiler makes the long journey from the forest to the village, the dog has to run alongside.
We spend a lot of time with one bearded gentleman, who travels from hut to hut trapping sables for their fur. The windows of the hut are filled not with glass, but heavy plastic — because bears can break glass. In one scene, he arrives late in the day to a hut, only to find it’s been crushed by a falling tree. With not enough time to travel to the next one, he has to quickly repair the hut before the subzero night falls.
This is Herzog’s idea of paradise, apparently. “They are truly free,” he rhapsodizes in his unmistakable accent on the voiceover narration. “No taxes, no governnment, no rules. Equipped only with their own individual values and standards of conduct.” Self-sufficiency is bliss for Herzog, and in a way the Siberians are as preserved in amber for him as the prehistoric artists he mused about in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”
In fact, Herzog is so smitten with his “Happy People” that he didn’t actually shoot the film. The footage comes from a four-hour Russian television series, which he has cut down to a brisk 94-minute travelogue and added his own narration. So, in a very real sense, we are watching Herzog watch this film, his rapturous reaction illuminating as much about himself as his subjects.
“Happy People” is not top-tier Herzog; it doesn’t have a narrative thread or a dramatic arc, content to observe and report. It’s an engrossing ethnographic study, but I have to think that if Herzog was wielding the camera himself, the film would have dug deeper into these people’s lives and why they choose the life they’ve chosen. Also, after 90 minutes in the Taiga, enduring this Wisconsin winter feels like a breeze.