When agreeing with MDR (the German ARD Channel) to make a film about the last President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, the filmmaker in me asked how we could create a narrative that was engaging, unique and attractive to a new generation who had little experience or knowledge of the ‘Gorbachev Years’ and the Cold War? Having collaborated with Werner Herzog over a thirty year period, I thought that his inimitable insights might provide the key. I was therefore delighted when he agreed to participate, co-direct and conduct the interviews with the ailing ex-Soviet leader. It worked wonderfully. There was a great bond between the two men and Werner was able to ask questions other interviewers would not have dreamt of. “What would you like inscribed on your gravestone?” He asked. “ We tried”, Gorbachev replied. “I am a German, and the first German you met you probably wanted to shoot” Werner says referring to the hatred between Russia and Germany stemming from World War 11.
“NO” said Gorbachev, and relayed how as a boy nearby Germans made wonderful biscuits in the shape of rabbits that made the young Gorbachev really like Germans!! We made a film that was deliberately not a stereotype history documentary. Instead of detailing all the events of the 1980s and 90s we followed the personal story seen through Gorbachev’s eyes enabling us to expose the humanity behind political characters that shaped the end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany and the attempts to end nuclear proliferation.
Eventually Gorbachev failed in his attempts to fully reform the old Soviet Union, but the contrast between what is happening in the world now and what he was confronting in the 1980s is dramatic. Whilst making the film we were moved by the loneliness of the man who tackled the impossible and is regarded today by many Russians as the person responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Empire. He is now an ailing 87 year old figure living in isolation in Moscow but still has lessons he wants to give the world and which he relayed to Werner in his interview – particularly about the dangers of nuclear weaponry which he sees with alarm going in the opposite direction to what he and Ronald Reagan fought for thirty years ago. We both felt this was a man still worth listening to and we were privileged to hear his insights and to be able to share them in this film.