Werner Herzog on the personal and political 'tragedy' of 'Meeting Gorbachev'

TORONTO — For German filmmaker Werner Herzog, the rise and fall of former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev represents not only a personal tragedy, but a political failure of global proportions.

Herzog's new documentary, "Meeting Gorbachev," chronicles the Communist leader's efforts to open the Soviet Union to the outside world, which set the stage for the fall of the Iron Curtain.

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But Herzog fears Gorbachev's promise of a "peace zone" extending from Vancouver to Vladivostok has been squandered as renewed hostilities between Russia and the West raise the spectre of the Cold War.

"What was interesting to me is ... the dynamics that rule international relationships beyond Gorbachev," Herzog said in an interview with "Meeting Gorbachev" co-director Andre Singer at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.

"The feeling is always present in the conversations with Gorbachev: How many chances have we missed ever since?"

Over a six-month period, Herzog conducted three interviews with Gorbachev, reflecting on his political trajectory from party apparatchik to trailblazing reformer and, ultimately, scapegoat for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

With his signature Bavarian bravura, Herzog paints an unabashedly fawning portrait of his subject, at one point outright telling Gorbachev "I love you" for his leadership during the reunification of Germany.

This praise is echoed by a host of international dignitaries in the film who say Gorbachev's diplomatic touch was instrumental to forging a nuclear disarmament deal with former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

Speaking to The Canadian Press, Herzog draws a parallel between Gorbachev and Reagan's "improbable" rapport at the 1986 Reykjavik summit and the "even more improbable" top-level meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore last year.

"They talk to each other, and we should have respect for that – no matter what you think of Trump, no matter what you think of Kim Jong Un," Herzog said.

The same accomplishments that made Gorbachev a "mascot" in the West — particularly his reluctant role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union — have rendered him a "traitor" for many Russians, said Herzog.

Since the death of his beloved wife in 1991, the ailing 88-year-old has lived in Russia in relative isolation, most of his family having moved abroad.

"He lives in fundamental solitude, in a way, and it's not only a personal tragedy. I think there's something very Russian about it," said Herzog.

As Herzog sees it, Gorbachev's unrealized vision of a "common house of peace" between Russia and the West can be read as a cautionary tale for today's political leaders: put down your weapons and open up a dialogue — or the world will pay the price.

"We see the many missed opportunities, and I think cold war is an abnormal form of international relations," Herzog said. "We should probably depart from the narrative of demonization of Russia. It is not productive, because Russia would be a wonderful and natural ally to the West."

"Meeting Gorbachev" hits theatres in Toronto, Vancouver and Waterloo, Ont., on Friday, and will expand to Ottawa, Victoria, Calgary and other Canadian cities throughout the month.

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