Werner Herzog’s films, whether fictions like Fitzcarraldo or documentaries like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, take some of their power from the patina of experience: In front of the camera and behind it, they’re the product of immersion in foreign and often forbidding places. But for Happy People, which Herzog culled from a four-hour TV documentary by Dmitry Vasyukov, he ventured nowhere more inhospitable than the editing room and the sound booth. Overlaid with Herzog’s characteristic voiceover, it’s unmistakably part of the director’s canon, and just as unmistakably a minor addition to it.
Herzog’s subjects (if the possessive even applies) scrape out a living in the frozen wastes of Siberia, in an area so remote that for much of the year the only way out is by helicopter. He seems most drawn to a solitary fur trapper named Gennady, whose method of turning narrow saplings into traps with only an axe and a sharp knife goes back more than a century. But though Herzog’s narration deploys an ethnographic “us” a few minutes in, it never breaks through the feeling of remove. “I survived, but it’s a long story,” Gennady says as he recalls being airdropped into the barely developed region during the Soviet era. Happy People tells only a fraction of it.