Hitting festivals in 2010, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga is a boiled-down 90-minute edit of Dmitry Vasyukov’s four-hour epic, which the young filmmaker shot himself for Russian TV, trailing after several trappers as they eke out a contented livelihood in that titular wilderness’s endless forests. This Siberian jaunt, free from cultural weirdness and ethical barbed wire, is even more of a vacation for Werner Herzog than it first appears: The German codirector never left L.A.
It’s hardly the first time Herzog has co-opted others’ footage, and here he cuts to the bone, narrating in his familiar fashion and happily observing that the weathered hunters are “truly free, no taxes, no government, no laws,” and that one villager is a distant kin to Soviet-era film giant Andrei Tarkovsky. Working the elements is the only thing on the docket.
The results are not quite Herzogian: The procedural depiction of cutting a canoe, building sable traps, making skis, training the toughest dogs on earth, etc., is all interesting and quite Nanook-ish, and the summertime mosquito assault can haunt your dreams. But don’t expect the payloads of cosmic irony and mystery Herzog has had occasion to find wherever he goes. If the man had actually touched down on the ice himself, we’d probably be having a different conversation.