There are probably no two films that, at first glance, appear less comparable than Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Werner Herzog’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. First and foremost, Nebraska is a fiction film, while Taiga is a documentary. Nebraska is shot in black and white, Taiga in color. Nebraska’s story follows a family over the course of a few days; Taiga is compiled from four years worth of footage (originally shot by Russian director Dmitry Vasyukov), following multiple families and individuals. And finally, Nebraska, to no surprise, is set in its namesake (as well as several surrounding states), while Taiga is set in Russia’s harsh Siberian tundra. However, upon further inspection, both films share several important qualities. They use the backdrops of specific regions of the world to bring meaning to their respective narratives. It is with these landscapes that the filmmakers assert the shared theme of both films: the decay of the modern world. In each of these films, modernity serves as an object of despair and destruction, with the characters directly ruined by its presence, or bettered by its absence.
First, it is necessary to define what is meant by “the modern world” or “modernity.” For the purposes of this argument, modernity refers to the interdependence of contemporary society as a necessary function for the growth and sustainability of human life. It is the figurative “shrinking” of the world and inclusion of all (or most) peoples into the larger web of trade, communication, and pragmatic interaction. From this general definition, we can realize an image of the modern world as seen through a sociopolitical lens. It is with this lens that both Alexander Payne and Werner Herzog created their respective films.
In Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, an old man named Woody is seen walking by the side of the road and is taken in by the police. His son, David, picks him up from the station and asks him where he was going. Woody tells David that he won a million dollars and has to get to Nebraska to retrieve his winnings. David sees that his father (who suffers from dementia and alcoholism) has been tricked by a scam certificate he received in the mail. However, Woody is hell-bent on getting to Nebraska, so David agrees to drive him the 800 miles from their home in Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska. Thus begins the darkly comical road trip between ailing father and bitter, albeit devoted son. Like many road trip films, the scenery is as much a character as the people. Nebraska (as well as Montana and South Dakota) is portrayed as a bleak, lifeless landscape. Payne mixes images of flat, sprawling farmland with deserted main streets and bars whose occupants seem to never change. There is an endless supply of old, dilapidated buildings and a sign welcoming drivers to Nebraska with the unintentionally depressing phrase “…the good life.”
Alexander Payne grew up in Nebraska, and uses Nebraska as the backdrop for several of his films (Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt). While Payne himself has shown a certain nostalgic fondness for Nebraska in his interviews, his films show a rather melancholic, satirical vision of the state. The film portrays two men, father and son, who are both at “existential crossroads” and simultaneously “working through interior crises” (Andersen). Rural Nebraska and its inhabitants symbolize a part of society that may have flourished at one time, but is now left in complete decay. The residents of the small, lifeless towns in Nebraska are never seen in a present, active state. The older citizens lament their current circumstances and live vicariously through their own memories, while the younger citizens simply accept their depressing reality and do little to change it. No one is rich or happy. People simply are. They exist, and that is enough.
The film ends on a somewhat positive note, with father and son having bonded over the experience, despite not winning any money. This, in a sense, reflects the director’s indictment of modernity. The two lead characters, who are miserable throughout their journey, finally find a little bit of happiness once they let go of Woody’s obsession with winning money, and embrace the simple joy of companionship. The scam certificate, itself a product of modern capitalism, represents modernity. While the characters cannot fully escape modernity in their current state, once they let go of their obsession with the scam certificate, they can begin the first step toward true happiness.
In Taiga, Werner Herzog paints a much different picture through his characters. In this film, Herzog, famed director of Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, focuses his directorial efforts on fur trappers in the Siberian wilderness called the Taiga, which is a “remote wilderness larger than the whole of the United States,” and yet largely untouched by man (Boone). The few men of this region rely almost entirely on themselves for survival. They live in the harsh tundra with their families, and every spring, each trapper ventures out into the icy forest with his dog to set traps and collect fur to sell at market. They create their own shelters, make their own fires, set their own traps, collect their own loot, and even make their own mosquito repellant using the boiled bark from trees. They live off the land and nothing else. The theme of self-reliance is put at the forefront of Herzog’s vision (or rather, Herzog’s interpretation of Dmitry Vasyukov’s televised documentary). These men do not see their families for months at a time, and each time they leave, their families can never be completely sure that they will see them again.
One trapper, Nikolay, notes that “you can take away everything from a man, his wealth, what have you, but you cannot take away his craftsman skill…once you learn a trade, you always know your trade for the rest of your life.” The skills he is referring to have been passed down for centuries and honed and perfected over time. It is with these skills that the trappers make their living and survive without the pleasures and luxuries of the modern world. Nikolay and his fellow trappers work tirelessly to make their own skis in order to traverse the snow and ice. He says that factory-made skis are not nearly as good quality. He only uses a hatchet and a wooden wedge to make the rest of the tools necessary for his craft.
While trapping in the Taiga requires incredible skill, it also requires much of the trapper’s time. Herzog notes that “unlike sport hunting, preparation for professional trapping is a year-round job.” These trappers only get to see their families for short amounts of time before they must return to the Taiga every year. Each trapper must build and maintain a base hut, as well as a number of additional huts on the outskirts of their trapping territory. Once they have established their outposts, they must build and set traps for the coming hunting season, as well as protect their provisions from bears and other predators. The Taiga is freezing cold, sometimes dropping to -50 degrees Celsius, with large predators and dwindling food sources. The lifestyle of these trappers is a direct rejection of modernity. They have little technology, very little interaction with other people, and virtually no reliance on any person or institution for assistance. Herzog recognizes that this might sound difficult, even miserable, to the average person. And yet, he insists a narrative of underlying happiness. About halfway through the film, as the trappers set out in hand-made canoes to journey back into the heart of the Taiga, Herzog expresses his ultimate evaluation of their lifestyles:
Now, out on their own, the trappers become what they essentially are: happy people. Accompanied only by their dogs, they live off the land. They are completely self-reliant. They are truly free. No rules, no taxes, no government, no laws, no bureaucracy, no phones, no radio. Equipped only with their individual values and standard of conduct…every man has his own destiny, his own plan, his own territory…
The director asserts that it is only through a rejection of the complexities and chaos of the modern world that people can truly find happiness. Simplicity, self-reliance, and eschewing the pleasures (and displeasures) of the outside world are fundamental to achieving true happiness. Herzog drew the inspiration for his conclusion directly from the source material. When one of the trappers, Gennady Soloviev, heard that a shorter version of the original documentary footage would be shown worldwide, he asked Herzog “to make sure that no one pities [our] poverty, that [everyone] knows the people of Bakhta are happy” (Sharkey).
The Taiga is shown as harsh and unforgiving, but more importantly, Herzog argues that the region itself, as well as it’s occupants, operate almost entirely outside of modernity, as it is defined above. At the beginning of film, we see a small community called Bakhta, which Herzog says is only accessible by helicopter or boat. During the winter months, the Yenisei River is frozen over, so for much of the year, it is not even accessible by boat. In terms of accessibility, the Taiga is quite literally separate from modern society. It is difficult to reach, very few people live there, and very few goods are transported inside or out. As a result, the trappers of this region have to rely almost entirely on themselves. In film critic Steven Boone’s review, he proclaims that the ultimate conclusion of Herzog’s vision is that “the men of the Taiga are heroes of rugged individualism” (Boone).
Boone writes that he agrees with Herzog’s assertion, but concludes that, while simplicity is a necessary precursor to happiness, it is almost impossible to attain in modern society:
All of this apparent Walden-like freedom struck close to home for me—or would, if I had a home. I stepped off the grid in New York City four years ago, trying to find a simpler way to live that would free me of corporate wage-slavery. Four years later, I’ve found that such freedom is virtually impossible in American cities. To live as free and clear as the men of the Taiga do, I would have to go to a farm, a commune—or the Taiga. On a landscape of concrete, there is no hunting or homesteading, just purchasing and renting. Parks and community gardens preserve some testy relationship with the natural world, but, let’s face it, the world I and most folks reading this essay occupy keeps us dependent upon corporate delivery systems for our survival essentials. Are we happy this way?
Boone reads Herzog’s film and narration as a blunt evaluation regarding the virtues of simplicity and the evils of modernity. Boone’s final question is one that audiences are encouraged to ask after watching either Nebraska or Taiga, are we truly happy this way? Are convenience and efficiency worth sacrificing our collective well-being? For Alexander Payne and Werner Herzog, the answer would surely be a resounding no.
Both Nebraska and Taiga deal directly with the concepts of modernity and landscape. Both films create a dichotomy between these two concepts, with different approaches, but similar conclusions. In Nebraska, the landscape is a tragic leftover of modernity. Modern industrialization and consumerism have ravaged the land, and left its inhabitants as listless, drifting figures on a barren landscape. There is no color, no growth, and no prosperity. In Taiga, the fur trappers use the ostensibly dead landscape to achieve a level of happiness that is both unknown and virtually unattainable for the rest of society. If they were to abandon their trade, and return to modern society, they would theoretically lose this happiness. Simply put, for both films, and their respective directors, modernity is ruinous and antithetical to happiness. For regions that operate within modernity, it has the ability to destroy people’s lives and strip them of happiness. For regions that operate outside of (or mostly outside of) modernity, people at least have the capacity for happiness, and this happiness, with a little perseverance and hard work, is attainable.
Andersen, Kurt. “A Road Trip Through Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.” Rev. of Nebraska. The New York Times [New York City] 17 Nov. 2013: M288. Print.
Boone, Steven. “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga.” Roger Ebert. 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 01 Apr. 2016. < http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/happy-people-a-year-in-the-taiga-2013>
Sharkey, Betsy. “Review: ‘Happy People: A Year in the Taiga’ Shows Culture Frozen in Time.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2016. <http://articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/14/entertainment/la-et-mn-happy-people-20130215>