A film by Werner Herzog and André Singer, Meeting Gorbachev is a documentary made from three long interviews spanning half a year. In that timeframe, Herzog came to acknowledge that everything about Gorbachev was genuine. A gentle documentary, like it's ageing subject is filled with archive materials and incredible access to arguably the world's greatest living politician (age 87 at the time of filming and battling illness), the visionary Mikhail Gorbachev, the former General Secretary of the U.S.S.R.
Born 2 March 1931 of mixed Russian and Ukrainian heritage in Privolnoye, Stavropol Krai, Gorbachev's family were poor peasants. He witnessed the war as an adolescent, a nazi invasion that left 25 million dead, yet when affectionately teased by Herzog that the first German he met probably wanted to kill him, Gorbachev came back with a story about his German neighbours who had a shop filled with amazing gingerbread biscuits and sweets. It was then that he learned that there were people called Germans and thought those who made such good sweets, could not be bad.
Politically the documentary doesn't uncover anything more than what we already know about Gorbachev. All the political aspects can be seen through archive footage of poignant moments in Gorbachev's career. What's astonishing is Herzog's ability to draw out the character of such an important figure, and being able to ask questions other interviewers would not have dreamt of, making it a warm and personal projection of the man behind the politics.
A man who had achieved three remarkable accomplishments: negotiations with the U.S. to reduce nuclear weapons; cessation of Soviet control of Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany; and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Eastern Block. All this in six years! A reminder of how the world can change in a drastic and unforeseeable way. By the end of the documentary, you cannot help but feel affectionate towards this man who remained humble throughout his life, and whose great gift was to establish immediate rapport with people.
Gorbachev's father was a highly decorated war veteran who died a heroes death at The Front. We fought till we ran out of fight were the words of his father Gorbachev would never forget. From a godforsaken place in the middle of no where, is where one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century emerged. He excelled in everything he put his mind to in academic studies and was accepted into Moscow State University without an entry exam. It was there that he met the love of his life, Raisa Titarenko, a fellow student whom he married in 1953 prior to graduating with highest honours in his law degree.
He was a man of the people, someone who'd hitch a truck or walk for days to personally visit the peasants who adored him, to find out first hand what was happening on the ground. He travelled far and wide to search out a better farming system for the people; eg. Hungary - how he could emulate and produce as much food and cattle as they did for 70-80 million people. His extraordinary political talents were noticed by other world leaders, a man who would speak to and listen to the people.
Herzog did not want the film to be a biography and has succeeded in not making this a stereotypical history doco but a personal story seen through the eyes of Gorbachev. He still has a lot to say about nuclear disarmament for a peaceful global future and is frankly frustrated over the lack of progress over nuclear arms reduction since he initiated it with Ronald Reagan. It's still fascinating to hear from a mind still sharp, though the body many be slow.
A lonely figure since he lost his beloved wife to leukaemia, he states that when she died his life was taken from him. Their love for each other can be clearly witnessed, though a very small segment in the documentary. When asked how he'd like his gravestone to read, he mentions it's what he read on his friend's tombstone - we tried. Below are the words to the song he attempts to sing as the documentary trails to its end.