Werner Herzog peered into the infinite with the recent documentaries Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about 20,000-year-old paintings; and the death-penalty-themed Into the Abyss. He's at it again with the marvelous Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, which he codirected with Dmitry Vasyukov.
The subject is Siberian fur trappers who seem like time travelers from prehistory, or at least the preindustrial era. These bearded, resourceful men spend much of the year alone. They live in tiny log homes that look forlorn in the snow-covered Siberian landscape. They trap sables - in the winter, because the animals' fur is thicker then.
Herzog carefully documents the trappers' methods. They spend spring, summer and fall readying for winters they hope will be profitable. They prepare traps, build huts, smoke fish. In the summer they are plagued by swarms of mosquitoes. Wisconsinites who see this film will never complain about mosquitoes again.
Some tasks stretch out over months. A trapper fells a tree on a snowy landscape. Later, on a sunny summer day, he uses the lumber to make skis.
There are scenes of arresting, eerie beauty, as when the thawing of a river sets acres of ice in motion. In another unforgettable sequence, a trapper makes a Christmastime journey. He drives a snowmobile on the frozen river as his dog runs behind.
Like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Happy People shows us rare sights. We see ice fishing from the perspective of the fish. Someone was under the Siberian ice, filming!
From time to time, the action shifts to the isolated village where the trappers spend part of the year. Some of the people who live there are indigenous. Only the elderly people remember the old folkways, Herzog tells us in his unmistakable voiceover narration. When they're gone, the culture will go with them. The younger indigenous people do menial labor. Some of them drink too much. They blame the Russians for bringing vodka.
The outside world makes itself known only in small ways. A child wears a Pokémon T-shirt. In an odd sequence, a politician arrives on a boat. He delivers a campaign speech and then, accompanied by a trio of young women, sings. Some of the young people in the audience dance. Others just stare. It's all very Herzogian.
There are big themes here, but Herzog doesn't overstate them. Death permeates the world of the trappers. Animal carcasses are everywhere. In a quiet, searing speech, a trapper tells how he was sad when a bear disemboweled a favorite dog.
Herzog says the trappers are among the only people who get to appreciate this beautiful landscape. It is indeed stunning. But these guys look awfully busy just staying alive.