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Originally published Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 3:00 PM

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‘Happy People: A Year in the Taiga’: Werner Herzog’s vision of life in Siberia

A movie review of “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” Werner Herzog’s documentary, culled from a Russian television film, that self-consciously idealizes a hardscrabble life in Siberia.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie Review 3 stars

“Happy People:
A Year in the Taiga,”
a documentary directed by Werner Herzog and Dmitry Vasyukov, from a screenplay by Herzog, Vasyukov and Rudolph Herzog.
94 minutes. Not rated. In English and Russian, with English subtitles. Varsity.

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The legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog shoots remarkable films about extreme endeavors in extreme places: his classic 1972 feature “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (set in the Amazonian jungle), for instance, and more recently such dazzling documentaries as “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (the Chauvet Cave in southern France).

For his 2010 documentary “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga,” set in the crushing ruggedness and cold of a remote Siberian village — and beyond it the Taiga, an enormous forest region — Herzog didn’t have to travel far.

As with his 2005 “Grizzly Man,” “Happy People” is built around pre-existing footage.

But where Herzog added new material to “Grizzly Man” to inquire into a tale of fatal obsession, the 94-minute “Happy People” finds the director waxing poetic and unapologetically idealistic over images entirely culled from a four-hour Russian television documentary.

Whatever that longer, original TV cut looks like, Herzog has fashioned his extracted footage to resemble a cross between an old Robert J. Flaherty documentary (the 1922 silent “Nanook of the North” certainly comes to mind) and, well, a vintage Werner Herzog movie.

There are historic arguments that “Nanook’s” noble portrait of the Canadian Arctic’s Inuk people was partly contrived by Flaherty. Those claims are echoed in Herzog’s past admissions he doesn’t really make documentaries but rather self-aware versions of reality suiting his storytelling purpose.

In a way, “Happy People” is an ironic commentary on Herzog’s relationship to the documentary form. Extraordinary footage of the village of Bakhtia and the hardscrabble life of fur trappers has the innocent appeal of an old-
fashioned nature film. But Herzog’s narrated glorification of the complete freedom Bakhtians allegedly enjoy adds a willful naiveté.

Yet Herzog is not insincere. His passion for outsize experience has always captured our essential human identity against big backdrops. He captures it again in “Happy People,” but this time with a twist.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com

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