In his earlier documentaries, Werner Herzog has played both ethnographer and psychologist, seeking to understand subjects who live in the extremes. But in Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, he leaves analysis behind and just lets life happen.
His film observes a contented-cum-isolated Siberian village's subsistence culture, less Grizzly Man than Nat Geo, less intriguing than merely interesting, and a hair slower than Herzog's familiar narrative voice. Why would anyone live in a place that you can only reach by helicopter and, for a few summer months, by boat? Because that's where they live. Gennady Soloviev, whose robust dogs are his main companions, got sent there 40 years ago to trap sable, so that's what he does — that's what he is. "There's nothing like fresh fish, whatever kind," one villager says. There's also nothing else to eat. When a politician visits, once every four years, he brings speeches, songs and sacks of wheat.
And yet, Soloviev owns a snowmobile and slyly references Gilligan's Island, so he's hardly a Trobriand Islander, removed from contemporary culture. "You can take away anything from a man — health, wealth, suchlike," he says, "but you can't take away his craftsman skills." Hard to argue with — if you can get there to argue in the first place.