Stroszek (DVD, from Anchor Bay)
Written and directed by Werner Herzog
With Bruno S., Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz
From “The Werner Herzog Collection” (Anchor Bay)
There has never been a filmmaker remotely like Werner Herzog. This is not a qualitative judgment, just a reiteration of his filmography. He blends fiction and nonfiction in ways no filmmaker before nor since has, and almost always it works, and works exceedingly well. Who else could craft memorable films with the psychotic actor Klaus Kinski? Make a “science fiction” documentary about the burning oil wells of Gulf War One? Craft an oddly moving, if undefinable film using a cast comprised solely of midgets and dwarves? Make Count Dracula seem pathetic? Make a man obsessed with moving a boat over a mountain into one of film’s great achievements? Or make a film about an idiot who is so dumb he gets eaten alive by the grizzly bears he seeks to “protect” actually work? No one.
But, if all that were not enough, consider his two films made with Bruno S., the mentally ill, vagabond street musician and part-time forklift driver who was abandoned to orphanages, insane asylums, and prisons most of his life. The first film Herzog cast him in was 1974’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” in which Herzog skillfully used Bruno’s real life dysfunctions to his advantage. The final film in which Bruno appeared was 1977’s “Stroszek,” after Herzog initially wanted to use Bruno in “Woyzeck,” the eventual 1979 film he later decided to cast Klaus Kinski in. Herzog decided to repay Bruno for disappointing him by writing the screenplay for “Stroszek,” reputedly in just four days, although given Herzog’s penchant for tall-tale telling, this is to be taken with the proverbial salt grain.
The film follows a mentally deficient character just released from prison, whose name is Bruno Stroszek; a surname Herzog first used in his brilliant 1968 debut film “Signs Of Life.” Herzog has claimed the reason he gave the two films’ lead characters the name Stroszek was because he was paying back a classmate in college, of that same name, who did some assignments for him. All the rest of the characters basically use their real names, as well, further blurring the fictive line of the film. Bruno (or Der Bruno, as Stroszek refers to himself)is a drunk and street musician (playing the glockenspiel and accordion) in Berlin, who was jailed for unspecified crimes, presumably petty. Upon his release, he promises not to drink, then immediately heads for a bar called Beer Heaven, then returns to his apartment with a local prostitute he is friends with. She is Eva (Eva Mattes), and when they return to his apartment, kept for Bruno by his neighbor Herr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz, an early Herzog film regular), it is in poor condition. Scheitz is a small, mentally ill man as well, who has kept Bruno’s pet bird Beo for him. He is planning to move to Wisconsin, to live with his nephew, Clayton (Clayton Szalpinski), a car mechanic, whom he met on a trip to Rammstein Air Force Base. He feels that there is nothing left in Germany for him.
Bruno and Eva agree they will go, but Eva needs to make money hustling on her own so they can all leave. This enrages a couple of her pimps (Wilhelm Von Hamburg and Burkhard Driest), who harass and beat her and Bruno mercilessly. Finally, they save enough to sail to the New World.
They arrive in New York, where Beo is confiscated by customs officials. They buy a beater car and drive to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, in the winter. Railroad Flats is a classic truck-stop town, but it is fictive. In reality it is Plainfield, Wisconsin, the hometown of the psychopathic Ed Gein, a serial murderer and necrophile who inspired the films “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Once there, Bruno becomes an auto mechanic’s assistant to Clayton–a man who yanks a sore tooth from his mouth with auto tools. Eva works as a waitress, and Scheitz goes off to perform bizarre experiments inanimal magnetism. All three occasionally help his nephew look for a missing tractor that reputedly was the last known time a local farmer was seen.
There have been four or five murderers in the local county, and the implication is that there is something about the environs that drives locals mad. The trio buys a trailer home and a color TV, but cannot keep up on the payments, as a sleazy bank loan officer (Scott McKain) threatens repossession. Scheitz and Bruno slowly lose their minds, and Eva takes off to Vancouver, Canada, with a couple of truck drivers she’s laid, as she slides back into prostitution. Bruno and Scheitz lose their possessions in a foreclosure sale, and watch the bank officer and a world-champion auctioneer (Ralph Wade) swiftly sell off and disassemble their lives. Bruno actually has several moments of brilliant lucidity during his slide, the most cogent being where he earlier says to Eva that the Nazi brutality he grew up with was out in the open (he recounts an episode from youth where he was publicly humiliated for urinating in bed) whereas American brutality is in the fine print of contracts and smiles of soul-killing sycophants like the bank’s loan officer. The American Dream is a lie, for him, just as it has been for millions of other natives and immigrants.
Scheitz goes even madder, and goads Bruno into robbing the local bank, which has taken their possessions, with a shotgun from his nephew’s home. They drive into town in the beater, but the bank is closed–either it’s a weekend, or after hours. So, they go next door and rob $32 from a puzzled old barber who calls the cops. Scheitz claims that all the townsfolk are in it together, to get him and Bruno. With their “loot,” the pair inexplicably go across the street to buy some groceries, rather than get away. Before they can finish shopping, the sheriff’s deputies arrive, and arrest Herr Scheitz.
They oddly leave Bruno alone. All he does is buy a frozen turkey, then take off as the sheriff’s car pulls away. He returns to the auto shop, kicks the vending machine for some cold beer, and heads down south, in Clayton’s 1950s-era tow truck, ending up in the Appalachians of North Carolina at a pathetic tourist-trap town run by Cherokee Indians who have totally sold out to white culture. There, he sets the truck into spinning in circles (reminiscent of a similar scene in “Even Dwarfs Started Small”)– symbolic of his life’s circular path to nowhere, until it catches fire, and then watches some animals doing odd things in a small display. He turns on a deserted ski lift (there is no snow), gets on board one of the cars that says, in back, “Is this really me!,” and rides it up the mountain several times, again going in circles — never quite reaching the summit, until a shot is heard. Presumably, Bruno has killed himself, although this is ambiguous, as the camera pans over the ski lift, and when a Cherokee deputy arrives on the scene, where the truck fire is extinguished, he makes no mention of a death. He only mentions that the truck is on fire; they cannot turn off the ski lift, can’t stop the dancing chickens, and need to send for an electrician, for they’ll be standing by. The final several minutes are of a dancing chicken, a duck that plays a drum, a rabbit on a fire truck, and ends with the dancing chicken, as the whooping and hollering of hillbilly music insanely plays on as the screen goes black.
The DVD, from Anchor Bay, is part of the “Werner Herzog Collection” and comes with a theatrical trailer, production and biographical notes, and a great commentary with Herzog and Norman Hill. In it, Herzog spins his usual informative and cogent anecdotes, rips conventional filmmaking techniques, and resents the tendency of critics to deconstruct every little thing in a film. Not every metaphor has to be based in logic. The Keatsian idea(l) of Negative Capability has never been better embodied in the work of a filmmaker than it is in Herzog’s canon, for many of his images simply are and do not have a narrative heft. In this film, the perfect example is the dancing chicken. It can mean a number of things, but the very act of attempting to pin it down robs it of some of its power.
The film’s German is subtitled, and the English is not. In this multi-lingual film, dubbing would not work. The film transfer is fine, and it is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. While not a film that makes great use of visuals, “Stroszek” has moments, such as thefilm’s opening, shot through a glass of water, that show that Herzog and his cinematographer, Thomas Mauch, knew how to distort reality just enough to blur fiction and nonfiction seamlessly.
The use of American folk music from Chet Atkins and Sonny Terry is a departure from the grander musical schemes employed with Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh in other Herzog classics, but is apropos for the dour American grotesques that creep into the film, starting with shotgun-wielding farmers who drive their plows right next to each other, to protect a small strip of land both claim as theirs.
But the real gem of the commentary is Herzog’s explanation of not only the film’s provenance in regards to Bruno S., but how he chose the town in the first place. He calls that part of the United States “Errol Morris Country” because he and the famed American documentarian (“Gates of Heaven,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “The Fog of War”) were fascinated by Ed Gein, who dug up all of the corpses in a circle around his mother’s grave. They wanted to know if he dug up his mother. What relevance this has is anyone’s guess. Morris chickened out, so Herzog decided to abandon the idea and write his screenplay for Bruno, thus angering Morris, who felt that he should have had some involvement, and that Herzog tread on his turf by filming there.
While in Plainfield to write the screenplay, Herzog met many of the non-actors who populate the film. Herzog also relates gems about Bruno, such as his painting fan blades the colors of the rainbow, and discovering that when it spun fast it blurred into white, or how he would walk about with his fly open, unawares.
Also, the use of non-actors is perfect. When Scheitz’s nephew, Clayton, starts talking about fucking women, in the garage, to Bruno and his American Indian helper (Ely Rodriguez), no actor could really get as into the moment as Clayton does, with his grunts and gesticulations — a natural idiocy that only documentarians like Morris have ever captured, as in “Gates of Heaven.” Similarly, when Eva comes back to Bruno’s apartment, she worries over coffee stains that he might make on his old out-of-tune piano. It is in minor details like this, that veer away from script and allow actors to fully embody their characters, that the realistic aspects of a film can shine. Most filmmakers would never even consider such matters of import.
Herzog also follows in the path of another great filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, in allowing narrative ellipses to occur. As example, in one scene Bruno confronts Eva in a café with her pimps. The more gaudy looking pimp leads Bruno out of the café by the ear, and wails to Eva that “hat moron”is on his back. We have no idea what being on the pimp’s back could mean, since the pimp could easily dispatch Bruno — and we hardly suspect Bruno would dare harass the larger man, but it gives us an “in” to Bruno that we later see revealed in his dogged determination to accomplish things. This is also reflected in a later scene where Bruno is despondent, sees his former prison doctor, and is shown premature babies who have a tenacious grip reflex. They are real infants, and the shots of a baby clinging to the doctor’s fingers, as the baby rises in the air, are remarkable. Hollywood would never allow such a shot for liability purposes and claims of child abuse. Yet this is standard Herzog fare, and why films such as “Stroszek” are important and transcend the formulae of most Hollywood.
That Werner Herzog’s films exist is something we should all be grateful for, lest people like Bruno S. and Clemens Scheitz be further marginalized in this society, which worships youth, beauty, and conformity above all else. Films like “Stroszek” are merely minor palliatives for that ill, but they are better than nothing, and hopefully will last longer than the grim impulses that make them so cogent.