Werner Herzog depicts a hard life that has changed little for centuries in “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” a documentary chronicling the life of trappers and fishermen along Russia's Yenisei River. These are men drawn to the unchanging rhythms of life in the outer reaches of Siberia, where they can make a yearly living from trapping sable and subsist from fishing for pike from the Yenisei's icy waters.
Herzog's work here consists of artfully editing and applying his distinctive narration to footage originally assembled by Dmitry Vasyukov for a four-hour Russian television documentary. Ever an expert at contextualizing the human condition, Herzog shows empathy for Gennady Soloviev and Anatoly Blume, the two resourceful hunters at the center of “Happy People.” These are men with no creature comforts who live their hard lives on a freeze-and-thaw cycle.
No season in the taiga, the belt of coniferous forest that blankets the subarctic plains, is without its struggle. Gennady spends much of his cold spring building the sable traps that form the basis for his livelihood, or fishing once the Yenisei's ice floes begin to break up. Mosquitoes swarm during the brief summer, and then winter marches in once again.
This is Herzog in his documentary wheelhouse, and he makes some great dramatic points during “Happy People” about his subjects' near-disconnect from the rest of the world. One memorable scene depicts a politician sailing into the area to campaign for votes. The residents mostly ignore the politician, even when he comically bursts into a campaign jingle complete with female backup vocalists, because he only shows his face in the taiga when he needs a vote. This is, for most purposes, a place without any governance apart from the laws of nature.
To call Soloviev and Blume “Happy People” might be something of an overstatement, but these hunters have found a subsistence plan that works in harmony with their ecosystem. The film is unlikely to upset this balance by inspiring throngs of young people to emigrate to the taiga and live off the frozen land, but it serves as a stark reminder that, for all the creature comforts most of the world enjoys, there are still men who strike an annual deal with nature at its most intemperate and emerge winning on their own modest terms.
— George Lang