The title of the documentary Happy People seems wildly incongruous when paired with the name of its director, Werner Herzog. The German filmmaker became an icon of European cinema decades ago with such feverish dramas as Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God, both of which explore one of Herzog's signature themes: human willpower challenged by inhospitable nature.
Lately, Herzog explores those same ideas through documentaries, the best known being 2005's Grizzly Man. His mordant worldview and dispassionate, German-accented narration have turned him into both a revered icon and a laughable Internet meme. Herzog impersonators only slightly exaggerate his grim persona on YouTube clips like "Werner Herzog reads Curious George." (Quote: "This is George. He lived in an obscene, overwhelming jungle where murder is the norm.")
So when you learn that his documentary Happy People takes place in and around an unspeakably remote Siberian village subject to extremes of inclement weather, you wait for another snowshoe to drop. Instead of a pitiless account of a doomed populace, however, Herzog brings surprising warmth to his toiling, fur-clad protagonists — or at least some of them.
Subtitled A Year in the Taiga, the film depicts four seasons in Bakhtia, a Siberian village of about 300 people that can only be reached by boat or helicopter, where winters are so harsh that 33 degrees below zero is "unseasonably mild."
Herzog shares directorial credit with Russian filmmaker Dmitry Vasyukov, who filmed in the Taiga for a four-hour documentary. Herzog condensed the material to about 90 minutes and brings his own point of view to his voice-over narration.
Primarily, Happy People chronicles the way of life of the Siberian fur trappers, who use chainsaws and snowmobiles but also employ crafts and traditions unchanged over centuries. The film presents patient scenes of men laying deadfall traps or carving canoes or skis by hand. They also enjoy productive, almost symbiotic relationships with their dogs, whom we see far more than their wives and children.
Just as the hardworking huskies provide constant companions to the trappers, Happy People feels very much like Herzog's companion piece to Grizzly Man. That film offered a posthumous character study of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, who styled himself as a protector of Alaskan bears — until one killed him.
Happy People's trappers could be pragmatic, perfected versions of Treadwell. Where Treadwell perceived bears as essentially benevolent, the trappers hold no illusions about the bears as potentially dangerous rivals for game. In a scene containing the film's rawest emotions, a trapper recounts how a rogue bear killed his favorite dog. But the trappers also embrace a sustainable approach to hunting and respecting their place in the world.
Herzog asserts the happiness of these men who enjoy complete freedom with no phones, radios, or other accoutrements of civilization. They don't describe themselves in those terms, though. It could be that Herzog's romanticizing their lives, like a tourist with a copy of Thoreau in his backpack. Nevertheless, Happy People suggests that after nearly 50 years, Herzog has found a little harmony in the wild.