Nov 17, 2012


Originally intending to cast Bruno Schleinstein (better known as Bruno S.) – the feral-like forklift-driver-musician-turned-actor and star of his previous cinematic work The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) – as the lead in his planned adaptation of German dramatist Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog eventually realized the role was better suited for Klaus Kinski and put the production of the film on hold for a couple years. Out of shame and embarrassment, Herzog decided on the spot seconds after giving Bruno S. the bad news on the phone that he would make it up to the outsider artist by making a rather different film with him as the lead. This film inevitably became Stroszek (1977), which Werner Herzog wrote in a mere 4 days specifically for Bruno S., including the use of his real flat, music and musical instruments, and his time spent in prisons and mental institutions. The bastard son of a prostitute, the Bruno S. was institutionalized at the age of 3 in an asylum for mentally retarded and insane children because he suddenly stopped talking as a toddler because his mother beat him so much. Spending 23 years of his life in a mental institution – a traumatizing event that further drove the actor into social isolation and a pathological distrust of other people – Bruno S. was eventually released from prison at the age of 26. That being said, the actor essentially plays himself in Stroszek as an intensely introverted and idiosyncratic individual whose utter mistrust for his fellow man bleeds through onto the screen in a manner that is simultaneously chilling, confounding, and captivating. Also starring in Stroszek is Fassbinder graduate Eva Mattes (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Wildwechsel, Effi Briest and In a Year of 13 Moons) – who Herzog later had a daughter with – as a somewhat sad but ultimately callous and calculating Berlin prostitute, and the quasi-insane elderly man Clemens Scheitz who, like Bruno S., starred previously in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and two other Herzog films (Heart of Glass, Nosferatu the Vampyre). Set in contemporary times and in two different counties (Germany and the United States), Stroszek was a notable departure from Werner Herzog's previous films, most of which were exotic period pieces. Incidentally, the film would be regarded as one of the director’s greatest masterpieces. Often described as ‘anti-American’ and an astute critique of capitalism, Herzog denies these claims, stating in an interview for the book Herzog on Herzog (2003) that, “The film does not criticize the country; it is almost a eulogy to the place. For me Stroszek is about shattered hopes.” And indeed, although quite mirthful in a curiously quirky way, Stroszek is ultimately a most disheartening and dejecting cinematic work, so much so that Ian Curtis – the epileptic frontman of the post-punk group Joy Division – committed suicide on the eve of his band’s first American tour shortly after watching the film as depicted in 24 Hour Party People (2002) directed by Michael Winterbottom and Control (2007) directed by Anton Corbijn.

During the beginning of Stroszek, protagonist Bruno S. is released from prison, assuring a skeptical social worker with his “great Hungarian word of honor” that he won’t drink alcohol (the source of his random and belligerent criminality) and that he will make an effort to keep his pants zipper zipped and keep his general appearance kempt, all of these of course being things he will inevitably fail to do. Soon after leaving prison, Bruno meets prostitute Eva (who has a penchant for sexually servicing swarthy Turkish men at deep dick discount prices) at his favorite bar and tries to console her after her pimps (the more domineering of the two is played by Wilhelm von Homburg, best known for his performance as Vigo the Carpathian in the film Ghostbusters II) abuse her. Before long, the oversexed Eva begins a relationship with the empathic Bruno, which is of the seemingly sexless sort as Herzog made nil attempts to portray the odd couple in an intimate light. After Bruno is humiliated and virtually tortured, Eva is repeatedly beaten by the pernicious and pugnacious pimps, they decide that moving to America is their best prospect for avoiding further degradation and starting a better life, thereupon making a desperate and naive attempt at the so-called ‘American dream.’ Bruno’s elderly and exceedingly eccentric friend Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) – a talented piano player with a number of obscure scientific theories – was already planning to move to Wisconsin to live with his American nephew Clayton, so the street musician and his ex-streetwalker sweetheart decide to accompany him. When the now-merry Teutonic trio arrive to America, they are happy as can be as they now have their own very mobile home – a true dream to the post-war German according to Werner Herzog, despite seeming like quite the cynical joke to the average American – but the protagonists' dreams dissolve quickly once they must face the reality of a mortgage, low wages resulting in Eva’s once again adopting the lifestyle of a prostitute, and the social isolation that eventually explodes into violent madness when both Bruno and Scheitz become convinced that there is a conspiracy being waged against them. These actions become all the more eerie when one realizes that the location of Bruno’s trailer is at the spot of Plainfield, Wisconsin where infamous German-American serial killer Ed Gein carried out some of his necrophile nights.  During one of his drunken but poignant trailer-park ramblings, Bruno S. states quite belligerently, "I thought America would be different, and we could get rich quick," but inevitably the distress incurred growing up in an institution in Nazi Germany was less vicious and vexatious  because they "hurt you openly back then" yet in the United States they do it with a smile, causing a sort of "spiritual pain."

One thing that seems quite absurd in Stroszek to many viewers, including myself, is that one is supposed to believe that tall Nordic redneck Clayton (played by Clayton Szalpinski) – an intrinsically unintellectual extrovert of the proud American peasant sort – is the nephew of tiny heterodox dilettante genius Scheitz; an effortlessly effete fellow that looks like he could be the a surviving member of German poet Stefan George’s literary circle ‘George-Kreis.’ But then again, America seems to have that deracinating power, especially in regard to Northern/Western European immigrants and their progeny. Personally, I have known people who were the direct descendents of European aristocrats who were sub-literate wiggers and skinheads whose daily activities revolved around bong hits, beer chugging, and siring bastard babies, but I guess such is the degenerating effect of a culturally and racially mongrelized nation with American Indians that exhibit the pantomimes of hillbillies and secluded areas with a population of 480 that spawn five serial killers/murders as depicted in Herzog’s Stroszek. Featuring Wisconsin mechanics who pull their teeth out via automotive pliers, territorial farmers who battle over a small plot of land while brandishing loaded shotguns on tractors like modern-day medieval knights, spasmodic and surreal yet authentic vocally proficient auctioneers (Herzog describes the auctioneer words as the last form of poetry; the “poetry of capitalism”), dancing chickens and piano-playing rabbits, and diner truckstops that act as underground prostitution rings, Stroszek is a flavorsome piece of American cinematic apple pie imported from krautland.

Admittedly, since the first time I discovered his cinematic works about a decade ago or so, I have been somewhat disillusioned with Werner Herzog, not least of all because of sentimentalist, ethno-masochistic films like Invincible (2001) and the patently pretentious, curiously contrived and absolutely awful experimental film like The Wild Blue Yonder (2005), not to mention his seemingly groveling puffery of Steven Spielberg of all innately capitalistic, global homogenizing, anti-kultur filmmakers, yet I have to admit that Stroszek – which I hadn’t seen in over 5 years – only gets better with each subsequent viewing and still stands as one the filmmaker’s greatest films to date. My girlfriend was also quite smitten with the film, so much so that she literally fell on the floor and almost threw-up laughing at the film’s anomalistic and terribly tragicomedic ending. Although Herzog is quite adamant that Stroszek, “is not one of those movies trying to make Americans look bad,” it would probably be hard for most U.S. viewers to think otherwise in a work where the country is depicted as the land of the feral and the economically enslaved. Still, one gets the feeling that Herzog truly enjoys the company of the mostly non-actors that star in the film and he even remarked that the best Americans are from the Midwest citing Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, and Bob Dylan as notable examples.  As for Bruno S., although he delighted in some minor fame for his performances in Herzog's films, he would later state that he felt, "everybody threw him away." Shortly after Bruno S.'s death on August 11, 2010 due to a failing heart, Herzog paid the belated 'actor' the deepest display of posthumous respect, stating, "in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him," which is quite the compliment to pay to a formerly institutionalized non-actor from a director who has worked with Klaus Kinski, Bruno Ganz, Udo Kier, and Michael Shannon, among many of the best actors that the world has to offer.

I hate playing favorites, especially when it comes to films by my favorite (and formerly favorite) directors, but Stroszek is without question my favorite Herzog film, not least of all because it may be the only film that manages to do the seemingly impossible by seamlessly capturing the essence of two distinct subcultures from two very different nations; one that I have an unhealthy obsession with and another that I grew up in and (somewhat reluctantly) call home.  Although a self-described "crazy kraut" who grew up in an isolated area in the mountains of Bavaria, with Stroszek Herzog was able to channel the 'essence' of America, albeit a marginal and oftentimes maligned (especially by Hollywood) segment, which has been rarely portrayed on the silverscreen before or after, thus it was of little surprise that the German filmmaker would remark regarding Hollywood-actor-turned-trash-art-auteur Giuseppe Andrews's feature Trailer Town (2003),“This place, this trailer park, I have a feeling that this is the real America.”  After all, Herzog mobilized the magical and mystical qualities of the mobile-home first via Stroszek; his most majestic yet mystifying and merry yet melancholy cinematic postcard from America.

-Ty E


MoonRisk7 said...

Fantastic review for a fantastic film.

Up Herzog!!!!

Claude GRUNSPAN said...

Thank you for this.