Happy People: A Year in the Taiga: Film Review

Veteran filmmaker Werner Herzog applies his stentorian narration and canny editing skills to this rigorous nature documentary.

Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vayukov's documentary depicts a year in the life of trappers in the remote Siberian wilderness.

Everything sounds more dramatic when Werner Herzog says it.

The veteran filmmaker’s stentorian tones infuse Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, a documentary about Siberian fur trappers seemingly untouched by modern times, with an emotionally rigorous atmosphere that is far from Disneyesque. Narrated by Herzog and shaped by him from footage shot by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov for a television documentary, this hybrid effort is consistently compelling.

The two men share directorial credit for the film, which is set in a remote wilderness reachable only by helicopter or boat. Devoid of modern conveniences, it is a part of the world in which battling the elements is as natural as breathing.

And those elements are harsh indeed, from subzero temperatures in the winter to mosquito infestations in the summer that seem something out of a horror film. Happy People—the title provides a clue as to the trappers’ general emotional state—follows several intrepid figures in the small village of Bakhta (population 300) through the course of a year as they pursue their manly avocation of sable hunting.

Theirs is strictly a DIY environment, as they cut down trees to manufacture their own cabins, canoes and skis, although the snowmobiles they employ have obviously been imported. Crucial to the trappers’ survival are their loyal dogs, who are treated with a mixture of sentimentality—one trapper bemoans the loss of his favorite canine companion to a bear attack—and dispassionate discipline.

While the original version’s four hours might have made for wearisome viewing for Western audiences, Herzog’s 94-minute cut feels just right, fully immersing us in this rarified world without lapsing into tedium. Featuring scenes of haunting natural beauty, such as a lengthy shot of a reindeer swimming in a river with his antlers gloriously rising above the surface of the water, it’s enough to make even the most devoted city dweller long for a sojourn in an unscarred wilderness, although definitely not without some modern amenities.  

(Music Box Films)

Production: Studio Babelsberg.

Directors: Werner Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov.

Screenwriters: Werner Herzog, Rudolph Herzog, Dmitry Vasyukov.

Producers: Charlie Woebcken, Christoph Fisser, Vladimir Perepelkin, Nick N. Rasian.

Executive producers: Werner Herzog, Yanko Damboulev, Timur Bekmambetov, Klaus Badelt.

Directors of photography: Alexey Matveev, Gleb Stepanov, Arthur Sibirski.

Editor: Joe Bini.

Not rated, 94 minutes