Werner Herzog's Meeting Gorbachev traces the former Soviet leader's rise to power

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      A documentary by Werner Herzog and André Singer. In English, Russian, and German, with English subtitles. Rated PG

      Werner Herzog’s interests in human ambition and man’s appetite for destruction meet in this fascinating and unexpectedly breezy documentary, as Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, now a frail if portly 88, looks back at some key events of the last century.

      Using rarely seen archival footage, Herzog traces Gorby’s steady rise from rural obscurity to postwar membership in the Communist Party—as one who immediately won friends among the peasantry and intellectuals through his personal humility and dedication to reforms within the system. He finished university after the death of Stalin, or surely would have been crushed before getting too popular. But the filmmaker spends less time highlighting how he was at odds with the party than with how he found ways to use it.

      He also climbed up the ranks as a vigorous yet nonthreatening young man at a time when the old guard was dying off—three top geezers in as many years, as captured sardonically in the name of his mentor, Yuri Andropov. Like many older Germans, Herzog admires the final ruler of the U.S.S.R. for charming Reagan and Thatcher into letting the Cold War peter out (“We both won,” he insists), for reducing the world’s supply of nuclear weapons, and especially for allowing the Berlin Wall to fall without a fight. Both men warily ponder the unintended consequences the Soviet breakup, which led to war in the Balkans, the spread and then contraction of NATO, and the rise of right-wing nationalism.

      Significantly, Putin is barely mentioned, and only glimpsed once, pretending to mourn at the funeral of Raisa Gorbacheva. The focus on the past is clearly intentional, even if it opens the door to overly sentimental gestures from the director, who occasionally asks reality-TV questions like “How did you feel when your wife died?” Fortunately, he also asks, “How did you feel when your country died?”

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