As he did with Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog has made a new documentary film from someone else’s footage, although to be fair, Grizzly Man only used portions of bear-lover Timothy Treadwell’s self-recorded video of his interactions with the grizzlies, while Happy People: A Year in the Taiga draws from all four hours of Dmitry Vasyukov’s Russian TV series of the same title. A largely ethnographic study of fur trappers in the heart of Siberia, Vasyukov’s four-part television series documents in detail the customs and methods of these isolated hunters whose tools, routines, and lifestyles have changed little over the centuries. Herzog culls Vasyukov’s footage to create a 94-minute version, which Herzog then narrates with his inimitable intonations. The result, however, is still largely an ethnographic film.
Although the trappers use some pieces of modern technology, such as snowmobiles and chain saws, they are largely bound by ancient woodworking customs to make skis, traps, and boats, as well as mosquito repellent and other things. Herzog’s narration venerates these men (and they are all men – we see only a few near-wordless shots of the wives and children they leave behind when they venture out into the Taiga). Alone on their boats with no laws or government to which they must answer, Herzog declares that this is when “they become essentially who they are: happy people.” This embrace of man as subject to nature is a theme that can be found throughout Herzog’s documentaries and fiction films. Yet in Happy People, Herzog presents the idea with pure admiration for men who work in this harsh milieu, and conveys little of the ironic tone and wry observations that mark documentaries such as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Encounters at the End of the World, or Grizzly Man. At times, you almost expect Tevye to bounce out of the forest dancing and singing a rousing chorus of “Tradition.”
It’s not that Happy People is uninteresting – its presentation of previously unknown, distant lives is full of lots of interesting tidbits. It’s just that the one sensibility of which we were previously aware – that of Herzog’s – is indiscernible, as if frozen beneath all this movie’s ice.