According to Werner Herzog, happy people are those un-beholden to government, or rules, or anyone but themselves as they hunt and trap in the hostile terrain of Siberia known as the taiga. In this documentary, a trio of trappers are seen preparing for the trapping season.
One of them, the eldest, and main subject, axes a tree with a very straight grain, which is then split and chiseled into a thin slice of wood, then soaked in water til it can be bent into a curve then tempered with fire to hold its shape. This slice of wood eventually becomes a pair of skis. A man who can make his own skis is probably not going to be cowed by bad weather, or isolation or any other obstacle.
The movie takes place over the course of four seasons. In summer, a brief season with 22 hour days, vegetables grow at lightning speed. Autumn is when the river rises making it possible for the men to lift their heavy gear onto boats and then haul them into the woods and stow them near cabins. Here is where the traps are laid, ingeniously made with the precise cuts of an ax blade cut. The balanced trap is poised to fall on sables, the prize.
I wish we could have seen how they sell the fur, and learn what economy results from their industry, but the point of view of the film is that these men live a subsistence kind of life, dependent on no one but themselves, using skills that are ancient and trustworthy to survive. Nature has claimed them. There is no tv or internet or phone.
One of the most heart breaking moments in the film occurs when native people (as opposed to Russians) are employed to cut and stack wood for the trappers. The natives are demoralized and often drunk and unfamiliar with their own customs. One of the men lets a cigarette light a fire which destroys their house and results in the whole family’s permanent displacement from their homeland. The man responsible is heard slurring his words in a drunken elegiac fashion while a sober relative laments the loss of a tradition and more. And then they are gone.
There is a lot snow and snowmobiling, and close relationships with dogs. The men sometimes reunite with their families, chaste kisses are exchanged with wives at Christmas, but mostly we watch as the men exist in nature, combatting the elements, and outfoxing the prey, that is, earning their livelihood. The photography is gorgeous. Werner Herzog’s narration as usual is quick to hunt for the deeper meaning of these men living in a way that might be thousands of years old. But still, I can’t get the sound of the snowmobiles out of my head as they motor their way through the Siberian wilderness.