Jan 2, 2014

Woyzeck (1979)




When I first discovered the cinematic oeuvre of Bavarian adventurist auteur Werner Herzog (Even Dwarfs Started Small, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) about a decade ago, I could not get enough and made a point of seeing all of the director’s classic films immediately and out of all of these films, the only one of these films that did not really impress me too much was Woyzeck (1979) starring Klaus Kinski and Eva Mattes. Since it has been about a good ten years since I initially viewed the film, I recently decided to give Woyzeck another chance and while I enjoyed it much more than before, I can safely say it is not one of Herzog’s finest Teutonic masterpieces but a secondary work and minimalistic minor masterpiece from a filmmaker who can afford to make a flawed flick or two. Indeed, knowing the background history of the film, one would think it was inevitable that the film would have been a short and sweet but somewhat sloppy work from the Bavarian celluloid Duke. Starting shooting a mere five days after Herzog completed Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Kinski (who replaced Bruno S. of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) after Herzog decided Kinski would be better suited for the role) and the rest of the film crew were naturally exhausted when they began working on Woyzeck, yet as the auteur explained during an interview with Paul Cronin, the film completed shooting in 17 days (most scenes were filmed in a single take!) and it only took another five days for the work to be edited, as the director wanted to take advantage of his time in Czechoslovakia (Herzog shot Nosferatu there and instead of seeking new film permits, he began to shoot Woyzeck but gave the false impression that he was still working on the vampire flick). Based on an unfinished ‘working-class tragedy’ of the same name written by German playwright/revolutionary Georg Büchner that was written in 1837 but not first published until 1879 after it been bastardized and heavily reworked by assimilated Austrian Sephardic Jewish novelist Karl Emil Franzos, Woyzeck is very much a Herzogian work in that, like the director’s very first feature Signs of Life (1968) aka Lebenszeichen, it centers around a disillusioned Teutonic soldier suffering from debilitating weltschmerz and social alienation who slowly but surely mentally deteriorates until the point where he must seek a sort of visceral and innately irrational revenge against society. 



 A dark and patently culturally pessimistic sort of urban anti-Heimat flick, Woyzeck has been described by Herzog as his most intrinsically Germanic film, stating in an interview: “My film of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck is probably my simplest connection to what is the best of my own culture, more so than Nosferatu, which was more an explicit connection to a world of cinema. Though I have always worked within German culture, making a film of Woyzeck meant to reach out to Germany’s most significant cultural history, and for this reason there is something in the film that is beyond me. It touches the very golden heights of German culture and because of this the film sparkles. Yet all I did was reach up and touch these heights.” And, indeed, while I am more than hesitant to describe Woyzeck as an immaculate masterpiece, it still easily ranks up with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) and Bolwieser (1977) aka The Stationmaster's Wife and Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Heinrich (1977) in terms of German New Cinema period pieces that pay tribute to great Teutonic literary works/figures of the past. Featuring dipsomaniac kraut barroom philosophers going on pessimistic quasi-existentialists rants that would put Schopenhauer to shame, a Jewish merchant who firmly believes “death should be cheap” and sells a cheap knife to a deranged soldier so he can bludgeon to death his wife, and a soldier antihero who shares about as much solidarity with the Prussian military ideal as a philo-Semitic commie like Berthold Brecht, Woyzeck features a cinematic portrait of old Germania that is about as romantic as the rape of Berlin by Soviet Asiatic hordes. 



 No-rank German soldier Franz Woyzeck (Klaus Kinski) suffers from a ‘fever’ that both his ‘friends’ and employers seemed rather concerned about, but no one seems to acknowledge the fact that the man does not suffer from a virus, but a foreboding mental illness that signals the fellow might murderously explode at any time. For starters, Woyzeck is a cowardly cuckold with a whorish mistress named Maria (Eva Mattes) with whom he has a bastard child. Woyzeck’s main source of employment is doing degrading jobs for a military Captain (Wolfgang Reichmann), who berates his discernibly meek employee for having a child out of wedlock and lacking a strong moral compass. As the Captain rightfully, if not patronizingly, tells the Woyzeck, “you always have that hunted look in your eye. A good man doesn’t have that. A good man has a clear conscience,” and whereas the Captain professes to have “only joined the war to affirm my love for life,” the life of a soldier has only confirmed Woyzeck's growing hatred for life and humanity. To supplement his meager income and support his impoverished family, Woyzeck is also the slavish guinea pig of a quack Doctor (Willy Semmelrogge) who severely scolds the soldier for routinely urinating in public and pays him poorly to try out an eccentric experiment where he only can eat of diet of peas and nothing else. Meanwhile, Woyzech's lecherous mistress Maria spends her days voyeuristically drooling at the sight of handsome soldiers and eventually begins having an affair with a handsome and masculine Drum Major (Josef Bierbichler) who is everything that her hapless cuck baby-daddy is not. When Woyzech confronts Marie about her slutty behavior and goes to strike her for her lack of remorse, she responds with the utmost contempt by stating, “Hit me, Franz! I’d rather have a knife in my body than your hand on me,” which prove to be rather prophetic words on the unclean maiden's part. When Woyzech makes a feeble attempt to confront the Drum Major, he is first verbally assaulted with the remark “I’ll knock your nose up your ass!” and eventually beaten by the man in a rather dehumanizing manner. While holding Woyzeck in a headlock, the Drum Major sadistically quips to him, “Should I leave you enough air for a grandma’s fart?,” thus further adding to the soldier's abject humiliation. After bizarrely declaring to himself “Today I am 40 years old…7 months and 12 days” and giving some of his belongings to a friend, Woyzeck goes to a Jewish shop owner to buy a weapon and since he lack the funds to buy a gun, he opts for a knife. Rather humorously yet strangely poetically, the all-wise old Jewish peddler (Wolfgang Bächler) states to Woyzeck regarding the knife, “I give it to you as cheap as the next. Death should be cheap, but not for free! You should have an economical death.” When Woyzeck leaves, the old Jew mumbles to himself, “There! Like it was nothing, and yet it’s money. The dog!” Ultimately, Woyzeck takes Marie to a scenic lake and when she rebuffs his warm yet pathetic embrace, the soldier states “How hot your lips are. Hot…whore breath. And yet I’d give heaven to kiss them one more time…” and proceeds to brutally and viscerally stab his mistress as if using the knife as a substitute for his neglected member. 



 Considering Georg Büchner died prematurely at the mere age of 23 from typhus before he could complete Woyzeck, Herzog decided to piece together the fragments of the play in a manner he saw fit, or as he stated in an interview: “I had wanted to make a film of Woyzeck for some time. For me there is no greater drama in the German language. It is of such stunning actuality. There are no really good English translations of Woyzeck, nothing really completely satisfying. The drama is a fragment, and there has been a very high-calibre debate within academic circles as to which order the loose, unpaginated sheets should go in. I used an arrangement of scenes that made the most sense as a continuous story and I think most theatrical productions use this same shape.” Indeed, despite the passages that are lost-in-translation with English subtitling, Woyzeck has a number of deeply poetic excerpts, with the following speech from a drunken vagrant-like fellow being one of the most marvelously misanthropic: “But…when a wanderer, leaning against the stream of time…or answering to himself with divine wisdom…is saying to himself, why does man exist? Why does man exist? But honestly, I’ll tell you…how would the farmer, the cobbler, the doctor live…if God hadn’t created man? How the soldier, if he wasn’t endowed with the desire…the desire…the desire to kill his own kind? Therefore, doubt not. All things of this world are evil. Even money decays. Finally, dear congregation…let’s piss crossway so a Jew dies!”   Of course, in Woyzeck, no Jew dies, but instead merely provides the weapon for a lovelorn lunatic to kill his unfaithful lover.



 In terms of acting, Woyzeck features easily one of, if not the most, patently pathetic performances ever given by Klaus Kinski. Apparently, Herzog exploited Kinski’s exhaustion from shooting Nosferatu the Vampyre previously to get the infamously egomaniacal actor to give the kraut cuckold performance of a lifetime, which he certainly did. Like his character Woyzeck in the film, Kinski seems to have lost all control of himself and has been denigrated to the level of a possessed demonic being who only has the capacity for erratically reacting without thought. In terms of anti-völkisch hallucinatory psycho-dramatic horrors, Woyzeck can only really be compared to Uwe Brandner’s brutal anti-Heimat sci-fi flick I Love You, I Kill You (1971) aka Ich liebe dich, ich töte dich, though Herzog’s film lacks even the most meager glimmer of hope and redemption. If I did not know better, I would assume that Herzog was living vicariously through the character of Woyzeck, as he gets to psychosexually slaughter Eva Mattes, who was the director’s real-life mistress and baby-mama (Herzog and Mattes are the parents of photographer Hanna Mattes). Regardless of whatever influences went into the making of Woyzeck, it is undoubtedly one of the most darkly poetic and pathologically perturbing films of German New Cinema as the sort of work a sterile and glacial filmmaker like Michael Haneke, who somehow manages to make cinematic murder seem about as interesting as a vacuum cleaner commercial, wishes he had directed. In Woyzeck, passionate murder is of Wagnerian proportions, or as the film’s closing inter-title reads: “A good murder, a real murder, a beautiful murder; as beautiful, as any man can hope to see. We haven’t had one like this in ages.” 



-Ty E

10 comments:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Eva Mattes (as the bird was in 1972 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

jimmie t. murakami said...

Woyzeck is one of those movies that has become legendary without ever actually being veiwed by anyone, perhaps thats the way it should stay, some movies have a mythical aura about them (simply by name) but as soon as you watch them they`re a disappoint-girl-t.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

5 brilliant paragraphs of Herzog-Kinski-heterosexual-magic, superb.

jimmie t. murakami said...

As soon as the geezer drops the cat out of the window it immediately alienates and offends American audiences, they cant stomach cruelty to animals.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

This is one of those films that you always keep a Criterion special edition DVD of on your girl-tlepiece, but like i said, you should never watch it, that would spoil the magic.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Woyzeck is another one of those movies that (with hindsight) seems as though it was made specifically for Soiled Sinema to reveiw, theres a genuine magic to these kinds of reveiws, a magic that you simply dont get when you`re reveiwing all that loathsome and obscure pansy queer bullshit.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Pippy Longstocking looks like Ellen Page ! ! !.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I like the picture where hes grabbing her twat, the lucky bastard.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Amy Madigan was 51 on 9/11, what a birthday that must`ve been ! ! !.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Woyzeck is exactly like me, a ludicrous and pathetic coward and weakling, its just that i`m better than he is at running and hiding and avoiding bullys.