Few surviving 20th-century political figures are so fraught with symbolism as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Aestheticized in late and post-Soviet culture and the Western Cold War imaginary, he leads immeasurably many artistic afterlives. One can see in his likeness the dissolution of a grand empire, disarmament, the face of Louis Vuitton, or a CIA plant. The post-Soviet Gorbachev both inhabits a state of metaphorical exile in his homeland and lingers throughout what became of the state he is credited with toppling. His image permeates the art of the 1980s and 1990s Moscow underground. In an Oleg Kulik painting, his silhouette looms on the horizon; what looks like the skyline turns out to be a mirage. On a nesting doll, no quite gets the birthmark correct. Nostalgia longs to restore the past, but it is typically willing to settle for preserving it in kitsch souvenirs.
Both a Hungarian Euro pop ode and a Nina Hagen rap immortalize Gorbachev as an object of adulation. He appears in Wim Wenders’s 1993 film Faraway, So Close! (a quasi-fantastical spiritual journey set in the reunited Berlin) as himself, alongside Lou Reed. Gorbachev returned to the role for a 1997 Pizza Hut ad, and used his proceeds from it to help maintain his struggling foundation. Even into the 21st century, Russian and American youths quarrel pointlessly online whenever a new upload of the commercial surfaces. “Nothing brings people together” like pizza. Gor-ba-chev, Gor-ba-chev! It’s a ridiculous chant. Everyone thinks they won the Cold War. Maybe there’s a parable here about the crass end to empire, or maybe the trite is just trite. Meanwhile, the Wenders film suggests that something worthwhile may be salvaged from the sentimental. Its effectiveness may too lie in its intimate dismantling of bad taste. This is a relief, as the Cold War is a very sentimental war.
So Werner Herzog’s new documentary Meeting Gorbachev is at least the second time the politician has been paired with an enigmatic German filmmaker, though Herzog’s portrait of self-serious interiority is far removed from the earnest and slyly self-parodic Gorbachev of Wenders’s fantasy. The Gorbachev whom Herzog encounters is 88, nearing what he imagines to be the end of his life. We quickly learn the former Soviet General Secretary is both a “chocoholic” and diabetic, as the film opens with a delightful scene of him opening a sugar-free confection mailed from London. In more serious moments, Gorbachev is possessed by a strange poeticism that is both proud and bracingly sentimental. His recollections, told in a series of visually sparse, intimate interviews, are interspersed with clips of iconic Cold War broadcasts, state funerals, and interviews with political contemporaries like former US Secretary of State George Schutz (who can also be seen getting duped by Elizabeth Holmes in HBO’s recent documentary on Theranos).
The story is sequenced roughly chronologically, beginning in the halcyon grain fields of a Russian childhood and continuing through the end of the Cold War to the present. Gorbachev progresses toward his coronation through a series of his predecessors’ funerals. Later, he moves through a crowd of farmworkers, cheered like a populist king. Eventually, the shrewd young law student from the provinces is anointed “the man of the century.” And then he is alone, weeping brutally over his wife’s casket. He is a man without a country now. Meeting Gorbachev is profoundly sincere and imagistic, and is perhaps as much about memory as it is about the title figure. Herzog resists the continuity of a traditional biography. The film tends to move laterally between private memory, public spectacle, kitsch newscasts, and pithy historical asides. It portrays nostalgic recreations of a lost country with a faintly surreal, dreamlike texture. It’s a sense of romance reminiscent of the “mass nostalgia” which theorist Svetlana Boym attributes to Perestroika.
Herzog is less interested in Gorbachev’s cultural iconography than he is in doing just what the title of the film says. A single exception may be a photograph from the Reykjavík Summit. Reagan and Gorbachev are frozen mid-conversation. Gorbachev’s eyes stay fixed on his strange, wilting American negotiating partner with his palm outstretched flatly. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty born out of this diplomatic breakthrough was signed in 1987, and thousands of missiles were dismantled as a result. That the treaty is now in a state of protracted collapse lingers somberly behind Herzog and Gorbachev’s cakes, walks down memory lane, and quaint gossipy asides — as do the opinion pieces penned by Gorbachev pleading the Trump administration to reconsider (they didn’t).
Nonetheless, says Gorbachev in a moment of emotional denouement, the point is that it was accomplished, “which means it can be done.” In one shot, tourists stand in line outside Höfði House, waiting for their turn to imitate history in a photograph. A thin, lumbering teenager stirs nervously, checking the original image on his phone in between rehearsals, doing it over and over to commit the choreography to memory. Maybe Gorbachev is right, and the future might go on, endlessly restaging the past.
Meeting Gorbachev is currently playing at Film Forum (209 W Houston St, New York) and other select theaters.