‘Everything became a lie, a performance’ – Werner Herzog on Soviet Russia

<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

What was Stalin like when he was ill? Did he have stomach pains? Did it make him sad? In Rezo Gigineishvili’s film Patient #1, a frail communist leader in the 1980s Soviet Union seeks urgent answers to these questions as he feels his life slipping from him. But the comrade he calls from his hospital bed provides no reassurance: Stalin was never ill, he was only ever strong.

Spurred on to live up to the dictator they called the Man of Steel, the general secretary brushes off his doctors’ concerns and orders to be driven to the Kremlin. But he dozes off before his limousine starts rolling, and the motorcade merely circles the hospital grounds: a melancholy image of a Russian empire locked in ever-repeating cycles of history.

“We catch a glimpse of something that is much deeper, that’s what is astonishing about this film”, says Werner Herzog, the German auteur whose foundation is awarding the Georgian film-maker’s second feature its annual €5,000 prize at a ceremony in Munich next week. The award is intended to reward directors, actors or film score composers ploughing a path outside the mainstream.

“Certain structures came apart at the end of the Soviet era,” Herzog says. “Everything became a lie, a performance. This is what happens when empires unravel: you had similar things going on at the end of Yugoslavia, or the end of Hitler’s reign.”

Gigineishvili conceived of Patient #1 during the first Covid lockdown, when newspapers were giving daily death counts and he was reflecting on the recent passing of his father. “I read a lot of history books at that time and was transported back to the last two years of the Soviet Union, when everything was also very static and stale”, says the Tbilisi-born 41-year-old.

Between November 1982 and March 1985, three general secretaries of the Communist party died in quick succession, meaning the Soviet Union had four leaders in two and a half years. “It was almost a joke,” Gigineishvili says. “The people did not really feel sorry for them. The funerals were very pompous, but people were not able to express their real emotions about what was going on.”

The Soviet Union’s treatment of dying or dead bodies, he says, now strikes him as indicative of a broader condition. “I can only speak for Georgia, but here the only right to private property that was left to people in Soviet times was your grave.” Political leaders could not be granted that privacy – as with Lenin’s body, still on public display in a Red Square mausoleum, they effectively became unburiable. “The Communist party created leaders that had to be treated like gods.”

Patient #1, which will have its world premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights film festival in November, was filmed on a tight budget in just 17 days. Four days after Gigineishvili wrapped up, Russian troops set foot on Ukrainian soil. Watching his film now, it’s hard not to see it as a meditation on Russia’s undying autocratic power structures.

In one particularly resonant scene, a hospital cleaner confronts the dying general secretary about the war in Afghanistan, where her son is fighting. “Can’t you bring them all back to the Soviet Union?” she begs him, but the wizened man shakes his head. “Who is stopping you?” she persists. “America,” he replies.

Herzog, the film’s champion, is reluctant to be drawn on the film’s contemporary echoes. “Well, I am against every war, any war, I have to say that first,” he says. In 2018 he made a documentary about the Soviet leader who came at the end of the three who passed in quick succession, Mikhail Gorbachev, and has in previous interviews expressed some sympathy for Vladimir Putin’s social reforms after the Yeltsin era.

“What resonates within me is Gorbachev’s deep complaint about the missed opportunities of the west, and that’s still lingering,” Herzog says. “And I don’t think the demonisation of Russia before the war started was helpful.” When I ask whether Germany’s reliance on Russian gas at the start of the Ukraine war suggested that the west hadn’t so much demonised Russia as romanticised it, he replies that he does not want to be drawn into political debates.

Rezo Gigineishvili, Georgian film-director
Rezo Gigineishvili … ‘Everyone who grew up in the Soviet space was a product of a traumatising system.’ Photograph: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Gigineishvili, who has yet to meet Herzog in person, says the parallels were incidental but also inevitable. “One of things I have learned from watching the films of Werner Herzog is that, if you’re honest as a film-maker and you’re willing to achieve artistic truth, those parallels are bound to appear.”

When the general secretary blamed the US for not ending the war in Afghanistan, he says, it was an excuse. “The character at the heart of Patient #1 is head of a political system that is locked in a cold war with America. In that kind of system, if you don’t have an honest answer to difficult questions, you just create an image of the enemy to cover up your guilt.”

Gigineishvili says he wanted to investigate an experience shared by former constituent republics of the Soviet Union, from Georgia to Ukraine. “Everyone who grew up in the Soviet space was a product of a traumatising system. It seems to me that all the post-Soviet countries are trying to get rid of the horrible legacy we inherited, which is a very painful process. And sometimes, on the way to freedom, there are wars.”

Patient #1 will receive the Werner Herzog film award 2023 at a ceremony in Munich on 6 October, presented by Werner Herzog, followed by its world premiere at Tallinn Black Nights film festival in November