Many Pajibans have enjoyed at least one of Werner Herzog’s great Kinski films of the 1970s and 80s, so there’s no need to call those titles out. Our Twisted Masterpieces catalog, after all — like our Underappreciated Gems — aims to expose and vindicate titles that are overlooked, or at least overlooked by North American film-lovers of our generation. When it comes to Herzog’s fictional films, Stroszek (1976) is an achievement flattened by the reputations of at least four of the Kinski projects. But it’s Herzog’s non-Kinski masterpiece and it’s criminally under-discussed off the fan circuit. That’s too bad, because it’s riveting, addled, and provocative. It’s one of the best representations of the existential vacuum ever filmed, and it stars one of the oddest leading men ever put in front of a lens. It’s also appropriate to shine a light on Stroszek for the simple fact that, back in ‘76, Herzog still saw America as a place where distinct brands of commercialism and absurdity lurked, and still positioned himself as the lofty observer of a culture which has since tackled him to the mat and force-fed him its values.
Stroszek isn’t so much twisted as it is bizarre, at least by conventional standards. It’s no Pink Flamingos or Audition — it’s not kinky or ultra-violent. It’s disturbing, rather, because of its sooth-saying. It fuses documentary filmmaking with fiction, making reality run bloody across an unreal surface, and ejecting us from comfy categories. But even more jarring is the film’s abject realism. Like many Herzog movies, the cast is made up of mostly non-professionals, so there’s less emoting (as Herzog puts it) and more genuine human expression than we usually see onscreen or experience in the blaze of a Kinski. In the absence of Strasberg shellac, and without the distancing effect of The Craft, we aren’t protected from raw being, which unsettles, and which bolsters what Herzog calls the “ecstatic truth” of realism. His non-professional leading man, Bruno S., lets one glance at the lens escape his control in an early scene, then becomes habituated to the camera (assuming that scene was shot early in production) and pulls off an amazingly unselfconscious performance in the second half of the film; Brad Pitt needs to take notes. Stroszek is a time-capsule of neo-realistic 1970s — a 70s of the disenfranchised and the working class, unadorned by the just-so fashions and décor that usually glitz up the era’s movies. Everything looks grimy, and a great deal of the world — especially in America — seems rotten or factory-made. The movie also gets under skins because of its bleakness: bleak towns, bleak weather, bleak futures or bleak deaths, and a soundtrack that juxtaposes bleak commercial music (gentle honky-tonk and tinny Muzak) against the lively, impetuous folk sounds of Bruno’s glockenspiel and Sonny Terry’s harmonica whoop-romps.
Herzog’s use of music in Stroszek is one of the most arresting things about the movie. It’s worth paying attention to how he uses sound (or its absence) to depress us in one moment then elate us when we least expect it . Stroszek is one of those great artistic contradictions: pessimistic yet joyous, sickly yet full of humor. At its darkest, we’re never far away from a laugh and a warm bloom in our chests. Herzog drowns us in his maelstrom of “why are we here?” then revives us, and never more so than at the film’s conclusion, when we’re slapped with images of pure Sisyphean automation: a truck looping in endless 360s, a chair-lift looping in endless circuits, and a caged chicken dancing itself to death in an amusement-park attraction. These are Ultimate Expressions of the Human Condition, delivered to us in a droll rather than a sententious fashion. Thematic existentialism may be a little stale, but the way they’re handled here is ingenious and memorable, and Herzog is justifiably proud of Stroszek’s closing image of the boxed-in animals performing mindlessly for pellets. What’s really ingenious is the way Stroszek’s world isn’t outright horrific, but just colorless and workaday, and filled with enough bumps to keep characters on edge. The film is loaded with images of vexed promise, like the crying preemie in a maternity ward who, however vulnerable, grips a doctor’s fingers with the strength of human instinct. With this scene and others like it, Herzog makes us consider how even the frailest among us has potential — he ultimately undermines that promise, but in a way that suggests he isn’t completely without hope for our kind.
The story follows Bruno Stroszek, an ethnic Hungarian born in Berlin and institutionalized by a lifetime of orphanages and incarceration. He may get in trouble when he drinks, but he’s kindhearted and musically gifted. When he tries to help an abused prostitute named Eva (Eva Mattes), she, Stroszek, and their oddity of a neighbor, the elderly Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), are forced to leave Berlin and start fresh in Wisconsin. Herzog being Herzog, he decided to film a Wisconsin of toothless mechanics and frozen groundwater and lo-fi dreams of prefab homes that are dashed well before spring arrives. He filmed the Wisconsin of Ed Gein, the serial killer who first drew Herzog (and Errol Morris) to the region as a film subject. The Gein project was abandoned, but the region impressed Herzog enough to lure him back with a lens and a different kind of story*: “I wanted to define my position about [America] and its culture,” he announces in the film’s DVD commentary and production notes, “and make a cautionary tale about the lure of false freedom and the broken promises of inclusion and prosperity America has projected to the world for generations.” If his statement of intent isn’t blunt enough, the movie’s story and images make that intention hard to miss.
Petty criminals may have made Eva’s life miserable back in Berlin, and Nazis may have humiliated Bruno as a child, but Herzog weighs lesser forms of evil against those that really scar. After realizing the American dream is bogus, Bruno complains about hypocrisy in the States, where they aren’t kicked around physically anymore, but spiritually. Here “they do it politely, with a smile on their face. It’s much worse,” he decides. Both Bruno and Herzog omit the fact that Bruno’s psychological limitations hold him back where others may thrive — just as Americans often omit the fact that people can be “free” and “self-made” in nations outside of their own. Stroszek makes characters, viewers and director complicit in the nationalistic lies we tell ourselves about home and abroad, and it rips away the veil those lies have woven. Bruno’s limitations aren’t necessarily the product of European culture, despite the film’s suggestive opening shot of a Berlin jail-gate and Bruno’s symbolic emergence from incarceration. Madness and disability are shown to be American-born and American-made as well, and, if they’re not more detrimental to people in an economic sense, they’re certainly just as malicious. With the Berlin thugs, who announce they’re coming to kick your ass, you at least know what you’re in for — we can’t say the same about a possibly inbred Wisconsin local and his gun-toting neighbors. Their caginess is half-submerged and, as a result, far more threatening (this screed against American hypocrisy is also embodied by Eva, who dressed and strutted like a sex worker in Berlin, but who has to subtly pick up tricks in her waitress’ uniform once over the pond).
True to Herzog’s intention, Wisconsin comes off looking particularly bad. Berlin’s backdrops may be chilly and spare, but they retain a cobblestone charm, and Herzog’s precise camera frames them symmetrically enough to flatter. His own familiarity with Old World aesthetics makes the place look relatively comforting, even when Bruno and Eva are being assaulted by thugs. Conversely, Railroad Flats, WI is a desolate freight-stop marred by rust and dust where the murder and drop-out rates are unusually high — it represents an uncharitable view of the US from an outsider’s perspective. Railroad Flats is a barely-disguised section of Plainfield, where Herzog once had his car repaired and became obsessed with a hillbilly mechanic named Clayton (who appears in the film as Clayton the hillbilly mechanic). Clayton is supposed to disturb us the way Leatherhead’s granddaddy disturbs, but equally repugnant (and brilliantly played) is the unctuous bank rep (Bob Evans) who makes frequent visits to Bruno’s and Eva’s trailer, chasing arrears. When Wisconsin locals don’t put us off outright, they’re used by Herzog to alienate Bruno from his adopted home, like the neutral figure of the auctioneer (Ralph Wade) who sells off Bruno’s trailer home in traditional auctioneering cant. It’s the perfect metaphor for fast-talking commercial gibberish an outsider can’t hope to understand.
I’m making Stroszek out to be more unpleasant to watch than it really is, because there’s a charming movie underneath the dirty snowscapes and milky sunsets. The melancholy is balanced out by the beauty of Herzog’s composition, by small pleasures enjoyed by the main characters, and by wit that’s sometimes whimsical and sometimes dark and electric. Bruno’s glockenspiel solo in a Berlin courtyard, for instance, is part song and part hilarious and keenly timed commentary. The simple music, the rapt attention of apartment-dwellers, and Bruno’s confidence in the moment merge into something that absorbs and touches viewers. Later on, in Railroad Flats, the humor takes a dive into the sardonic when Bruno watches two farmers riding their tractors with shotguns over their shoulders. The farmers are feuding over a strip of land between their properties, so they monitor each other’s mowing side by side, rifles cocked. Yes, it’s a cartoonish view of rural America — an emblematic lampoon — but when it’s framed by Herzog, it’s knee-slapping hilarious both as spoof and satire, and I pity the viewer who can’t swallow such a beautifully put-together joke, or laugh as hard at the outsider’s skewed perspective as he can at the kernel of truth buried in the image.
Most affecting of all, though, is the famous last scene of Stroszek — the one everyone remembers and talks about. The sight of the dancing chicken and other performing animals is disheartening and celebratory in the same moment. The cages and automation are wrong.com, but Terry’s music is ecstatic and brightens the acrylic paint that decorates the boxes. Capturing the essence of contradiction onscreen, Herzog leaves us caught between emotional pain and pleasure — the perpetual human state. It’s this final scene that’s truly twisted, but in the most thrilling, delirious way. It caps off a gracefully filmed odyssey cheered by moving performances. Mattes (a professional actor) is clay in Herzog’s hands, and she’s also too soft to resist the elements that grope at her within the story itself, which makes her perfect as the simple, gold-hearted hooker swept up in other people’s tides. Her zaftig mass is like a cushion absorbing life’s shocks; she’s the opposite of old Scheitz, a fragile bird doddering around in a disconnected fugue — a figure of randomness who randomly brought the trio to the place of their ruin. Both characters charm us even when they stumble, and the love that binds them to Bruno challenges the film’s ideas about existence and is almost too convincing to be an illusion.
Herzog worked with Bruno S. once before, casting him as Kaspar Hauser in an earlier movie that explored the effects of incarceration on a legendary figure — an effect that haunted the real Bruno S., who was beaten to near-disability by his mother and left to roam the streets when he wasn’t locked in an asylum. Herzog says he wanted to flesh out the Hauser archetype in Stroszek and make the story more about Bruno S. himself. Hence the overlapping of actors’ and characters’ names, the use of Bruno’s actual Berlin apartment and piano, the busking scenes in the same courtyard where Bruno busked, and (according to Herzog) the creative input of the lead actor who ostensibly coached Herzog as much as Herzog coached him. Bruno S., however troubled and green (and however “twisted” Herzog was for hiring him, as some critics have postured), makes for an appealing presence. He’s immensely likeable, and his melancholy becomes more penetrating as the movie progresses. He deepens both as an actor and character as Stroszek hits a wall in Wisconsin, and he’s 100% convincing, in part because of his own background and cares, and in part because of the symbiotic relationship he forged with Herzog as they worked their way through the storyboard. As Bruno’s face shines on the faces of liars, brutes, and bureaucrats, the wise fool’s holy radiance draws us to the only place onscreen where truth and compassion reside. His face is simultaneously stony and kind — there’s no comparable face or comparable expression anywhere else in cinema, and the work Bruno and Herzog have done to illuminate the absurd way we treat each other is outstanding. — Ranylt Richildis
* The Herzog/Morris Wisconsin saga is the stuff of movie legend. You can read more about the crazy here (scroll to Part III: Apology).
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Twisted Masterpieces series, on September 17, 2008.)