Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 91 of 100
‘Stroszek’ is inarguably the most emotionally shattering work Werner Herzog has ever put his name to. It has, infamously, become known as the film Joy Division singer Ian Curtis watched just before he hanged himself. An extreme reaction (although it should be noted that Curtis did himself no favours by listening to Iggy Pop’s Dostoyevsky-inspired slice of miserablism ‘The Idiot’ straight after watching it), but I guess there’s something in that evil soulless fucker of dancing chicken at the end that’s capable of destroying rationalism and convincing you that there is nothing left but the bleak emptiness of despair.
So what compelled Herzog to create this hour and three quarters of bleakness? Some run in with the American studio system that caused him to render that country’s cultural heritage as an act of artistic suicide? Some failure of his own creative vision from which he reeled in self-critical agony? Some personal tragedy so deep and heartbreaking that he was driven to paint ‘Stroszek’ in the harshest and darkest shades of black?
Er, no. He made it to say sorry to Bruno S. for not casting him in ‘Woyzeck’.
For those not in the know, Bruno S. was the idiot savant street musician whom Herzog cast in the title role in ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ (a film whose German title ‘Jeder Fur Sich und Gott gegen Alle’ – ‘Every Man for Himself and God Against All’ – I much prefer). During production, Herzog told Bruno S. that he wanted to make a film of Georg Buchner’s unfinished play ‘Woyzeck’ and would cast him as the lead. Herzog shot ‘Woyzeck’ back to back with his loose but inspired Bram Stoker adaptation ‘Nosferatu – Der Phantom das Nacht’, using the same crew, and quickly realised that ‘Nosferatu’ star Klaus Kinski was better suited to play Woyzeck.
By way of apology, Herzog knocked out the script for ‘Stroszek’ (the similarity of the protagonist’s name to Woyzeck surely no coincidence) in a couple of weeks, and shooting the second half of the movie guerrilla style in America without a permit. But then again, this is Werner Herzog we’re talking about and small matters like getting permission to film have never stopped him. This is only one of many reasons I fucking bloody love the guy so much.
‘Stroszek’ casts Bruno S. as the eponymous man-child, turned loose after two and a half years in prison (the nature of his crimes is never disclosed, but alcohol is categorically blamed for his behaviour). His first act as a free man is to go into a pub and order a beer. Can’t knock him; I’d have done the same myself. It’s while he’s knocking back said beer, however, that he becomes reacquainted with his old girlfriend Eva (Eva Mattes), now turning tricks for a couple of thuggish pimps in some of the most horrible fashions ever to disgrace the 1970s.
Scraping out a meagre living singing in courtyards, Stroszek’s life takes a turn for the once when pimp-boy’s violent behaviour towards Eva quickly transfers itself to Stroszek. Then Stroszek’s elderly neighbour Herr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) offers a way out that seems to good to be true: a new life living and working in America with his nephew.
Too good to be true? You can say that again! Stroszek, Scheitz and Eva find themselves in Railway Flats, Wisconsin, a town so bleak and run down it makes Beirut look like the Riviera. Scheitz’s nephew, Clayton (Clayton Szalpinski), runs a dingy garage and is such a poster boy for personal hygiene and sophisticated demeanour that he removes a broken tooth with a pair of pliers and swills his bleeding gums with a can of beer. He has a face like the back end of a pick-up truck and sniggers about the possibility of shagging Eva. Yup, this guy is so déclassé that Cletus from ‘The Simpsons’ looks like Alistair Cooke in comparison.
Stroszek and Eva take out a loan to buy a mobile home, but soon fall behind with the payments. An unctuous type from the bank threatens repossession. Eva starts turning tricks again. Stroszek falls into despair. Things come to a bad end after Stroszek and Scheitz’s attempts at making easy money from a life of crime fail spectacularly. And, brother, do I ever mean spectacularly! If Bonnie and Clyde’s watchword was “we rob banks”, Stroszek and his OAP wingman demonstrate how not to do it by striking when the bank’s closed and robbing the barber’s shop next door for $32 instead. The concept of a getaway doesn’t seem to occur to them.
Granted, Herzog milks moments like these for absurdist humour (likewise a narratively redundant but bitingly funny scene about two feuding farmers and the no-man’s-land strip of dirt that separates their properties), but there’s no humour whatsoever in the denouement, which takes place at a deserted funfair. Stroszek rides a chairlift to nowhere and the dancing chicken keeps on dancing. Herzog has spoken of the idiocy of chickens. The chicken in ‘Stroszek’ goes beyond idiocy. Its meaningless gyrations go beyond a black joke at the expense of Stroszek himself; it stands as a metaphor for cultural emptiness; an epitaph for the clichéd myth of the American dream – something that probably never existed in the first place.