In the clip above from Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) Werner Herzog narrates the lives of Russian trappers in the remote wilderness on the edge of Siberia. His inimitable grave voice battles the sentimental soundtrack as Herzog tells us that these men, who spend months each year alone with their dogs, are self sufficient and thus “truly free.” The documentary, directed by Herzog with Dmitry Vasyukov, is wonderful — beautifully photographed and obsessed as only Herzog can be with the details of the trappers’ lives: sculpting canoes, hauling gear through treacherous waters, protecting food from bears, making their own skis…. The men are impressive craftsmen, and they can make whatever they need from the materials at hand. Living in a land only accessible by boat or helicopter for a few months a year, they have snowmobiles and television sets, but rely on food they grow or catch.
It’s no surprise that Herzog would romanticize this life as he has always been interested in the relationship of man and nature, especially in extremis. This film has the usual omissions: the men spend more time talking about training their dogs than raising their children, for example. Women are scarcely mentioned, nor are the ethics of the fur trade, tensions with indigenous peoples, or environmental concerns. But Herzog’s narration is more understated than in Grizzly Man, for example, where he makes more claims about Human Nature as well as Nature and Civilization. Here he only once or twice refers to his claim that the trappers are “happy people” because they live simple, self-sufficient lives….To his credit, Herzog doesn’t spend a lot of time defending that position. Instead he dramatizes the daily lives of the trappers across the seasons, showing us their enthusiasm for their work as the best proof possible. One trapper hardly stops smiling, even when a fallen tree caves in the roof of his hut. They may be happy, but these men are always one small step from disaster, it seems — which makes the film much more complicated and rewarding than the title might imply.