I’d follow Werner Herzog to the ends of the earth, metaphorically. Good thing, too, because that’s where he likes to go, literally. He chronicled the last days in Alaska of a reckless idealist who loved bears too much in “Grizzly Man,” checked out the peculiarities of men and beasts in Antarctica in “Encounters at the End of the World,” and exposed the ancient beauty of prehistoric cave paintings in France and the hopeless cycle of small-town Texas crime in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Into the Abyss.”
His latest documentary is minor-key Herzog. That’s because it’s not entirely Herzog. “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” is a kind of salvage project he stumbled upon: four hours’ worth of footage of the extremely rural life of hunters and trappers in Siberia, filmed by Dmitry Vasyukov. Seeing the long-form depiction of the kind of edge-of-nowhere existence that fascinates him, Herzog contacted the Russian director and asked if he could edit it into a 90-minute version, featuring his own, inimitably dry-raspy narration. The result is largely uninflected and straightforward, a quietly compelling immersion into a primitive landscape where basic survival is the residents’ full-time, year-round occupation.
Divided into four seasons, starting with spring and the rumbling thaw of the frozen-solid river that runs beside the tiny village of Bakhtia, the movie focuses on three hunter-trappers virtually indistinguishable behind their beards. We watch as they spend the “warm” months hacking the guts out of enormous trees to make dugout canoes, carving snow skis out of giant logs, and brewing up their own mosquito repellent (a gross-sounding blend of tree tar and fish oil). But this busywork is all prologue. What signifies the worst patch of the year for most people — fall and winter — is their prime time.
Heading off solo into the deep wilderness and the many square kilometers of territory they oversee, they subsist on frozen smoked fish and survive from one fireside to the next in a chain of tiny prepared cabins. They’re the title’s happy people, even though they’re almost unimaginably alone.
Well, alone if you don’t count their dogs. But you have to. We scarcely meet any of the men’s families. Yes, they have folks waiting out the months for them back in Bakhtia. But their closest relationships are with these dogs with whom they survive, side by side. Alternative titles for this tone poem of a movie could have been “Happy Pooches” or “Guys and Dogs.”
The film’s emotional high point comes from a trapper delivering a monologue about a favorite companion’s fatal encounter with an angry bear, a story capped with this typically stoic, if moving, comment: “I was overwhelmed with sadness.”
“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” A documentary directed by Dmitry Vasyukov and Werner Herzog. In Russian and English, with subtitles. Unrated. 94 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.