Werner Herzog Season – Stroszek (1977)
The journey down our long and winding road with our strange companions continues, but before we get into Herzog’s first American feature you must read this, as great a snapshot illustration of the man’s perspective on life, the primacy of your individual conduct and the elemental forces which shape all our mortal spans as you are likely to see. Technically the next film in the oeuvre is the literally mesmerizing Heart Of Glass but we’ll come back to that, as I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into Stroszek, an infamous film for many reasons that we will get into shortly. Decanted from his European roots Herzog’s unique perspective erred immediately away from the well-trodden clusters of America’s East and West coast, those cultural centres so often seen in the movies, as the movies mostly clustered around tales set in the urban metropolis of L.A. or New York, San Francisco or Miami. Instead we plunge into the rural Midwest for an alternative glimpse of the fraying dream which sits collegially with the movie-brat generation, those indigenous upstarts whom were similarly storming the studio citadels in the 1970’s with their character driven, melancholic narratives. Stroszek was Herzog’s second collaboration with the remarkable Bruno S., last seen as the lead in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, the lead in a oblique inspection of the body politic, a stranger in a strange land seduced by the trappings of the capitalist cradle. The film opens with the unkempt and unruly Bruno freshly released from a lifetime of incarceration, always a pungent start to a film as we immediately know this creature is another member of the Herzog peripheral who etches out his living in the margins of society. After accepting a warning from the local constabulary not to drink and get into trouble he exits his incarceration and heads to the nearest bar.
Clearly Bruno is not a mortal afflicted with an affection with social norms, with scant attention lavished on the nominal traditions of social conduct or common 20th century aspirations – marriage, employment, child-rearing, hygiene. Through his transgressions and refusal to confirm he is doomed as a victim of bureaucracy, of continual oppression from the state and from his working class peers, facing a litany of harassment and degradation from the delinquent local bar patrons and the similarly oppressive authorities. Sharing a climate of judgement Bruno hooks up with local prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes, a known entity from a number of Fassbinder features), similarly battered and bruised by life, terrorized by the local pimp who beat and abuse her on a daily basis. Their chance relationship dovetails with the plans of their eccentric neighbour Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz, so clearly Herzog wasn’t too fond of confusing actors and characters names) and his extravagant ambitions. He’s moving across the pond to Wisconsin to live with his brother, so this unconventional trio seek their fortunes anew in America, the rumoured land of opportunity and freedom. Even within the purlieus of Herzog’s lunatic imagination this is one strange and idiosyncratic film, as the dreams of freedom and happiness curdles and sours, with some bizarre incidents and episodes culminating in a climax that has driven troubled souls to suicide*.
Having not seen the film for decades the Blu-Ray restores the films modest visual strengths, lacquered with a tensile, crisp image, moving from the dulled pastoral plains of Wisconsin to the dingy domestic interiors of identikit mobile homes and Cherokee county tourist traps. For my money Herzog was never more skilled with character, with impact and effect than he is in Stroszek. His immortal thieves and jesters gaze straight into the abyss, beguiled by the stifling boredom of normal society and the horrors of bourgeois belonging, wracked with madness and isolation which makes the whole tangled theatre of modern life remotely possible to endure. After the initial seduction has waxed and waned Bruno just moves through a choreographed space, a spectre destined to keep traveling, to consume, to exist and experience, with no escape or exorcism of his European demons. Once ensconced in America the film becomes a mild satire as the surrogate family – mother, father and child – become subsumed by the host culture, racking up debts as they eagerly pursue the consumerist culture, the ‘father’ even flirting with crackpot ideas and theories which are now the staple assertions of talk radio – the moon landing was faked, magnetism affects crop and animal behaviour, that sort of paranoia.
Having slowly digested the film over the past week or so it has somehow reminded me of a Bukowski novel, sparse and direct in its grammar and efficiency, yet somehow excavating a deeper, more delinquent truth from its ostracised oddballs. Their failures and foibles sprout from a collision of nature and nurture, the decks stacked against you in teetering condition, survival and success dependant on simple indiscriminate acts of fate not faith. As Bruno’s fortunes decline the film finally shifts gear into road movie territory, and a curious symmetry emerges with the decrepit and rather exhausted Berlin of the first half of the film – Europe and America are interchangeable, the cultural and social ambitions dwarfed by the physical and psychic constraints of environment and ecology. Herzog finds these moments in images, in reflections and indeed the film in the production process. During this period he wrote his scripts very fast – 4 days for this one according to the commentary – and sculpts the ideas through the shooting, the discovery within locations and inspirations of the performances, press-ganging locals and non-professionals into supporting roles to layer a veneer of authenticity and vérité to the deeper, darker truths. The commentary also reveals some amusing anecdotes from the guerrilla shooting methods, frequently arrested for lensing without permits in New York and the American heartland, released by bemused authorities who didn’t know what to make of this lunatic kraut and his carnival of bedraggled technicians. Personally speaking there is one brief but simply extraordinary scene where a doctor shows Bruno a severely premature baby, a fragment which is among the most mysterious and affecting in the entire Herzog canon, the perfect encapsulation of the precarious grip we all hold on this mysterious mosaic of existence.
Wiser souls than I could position this within the wider Teutonic context of the period given the orbit of Fassbinder, Wenders and Schlöndorff, all key signatories to the emergence of the New German Cinema. The chasm of the Berlin Wall and lengthy shadows of the war still bred dissatisfaction and guilt for the children and grandchildren of the deceased Third Reich regime, and you can sense it in the films of the movement which are disquieting, decadent and deal in anxiety and disruption, particularly in the sexual, social and political arenas. Wim Wenders was fascinated with the concept of the road movie, that mechanism through which you can take disaffected, displaced souls and run them through a culture of transient locations and incidents along a rambling narrative path. Stroszek could be seen as Herzog traversing a similar route, a cypher of the immigrant experience seduced then destroyed by the capitalist chorus. Many films across all genres utilize a journey narrative which align the characters internal evolution, but Herzog seizes on this mechanism more than most with the physical mirrored with the psychic, arriving with Bruno’s abandoned spirit at a figurative and literal end of the road. If there isn’t a book out there on that thesis then I guess I’ve stumbled across a possible Film Studies Ph.D subject – Identity & Immigration – The German New Wave in America or something. You could pair up Paris Texas, Querelle, Stroszek and the studio backed films of Gunther Schlöndorff with the edgy existentialism of Taxi Driver, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces or Peckinpah’s narcotic fuelled laments. At least some of Sam’s tortured outsiders escaped to his Eden of Mexico, made it across the border and into presumably happier times by the skin of their snarling teeth. Stroszek is not so optimistic, as although Bruno’s fate remains ambiguous with an off-camera gunshot we hang on a startling visual metaphor, of cogs in the machine performing a pathetic, demanding dance like marionettes manipulated within the systems of indoctrination and control, a spastic twitch of consumption and compulsion that dwells until we die;
*Brilliant factoid I have discovered while researching this piece. David Lynch was in London, shooting The Elephant Man in 1980 and recalls seeing the film on television, which must have been the same BBC transmission that Ian Curtis also endured. Somehow he found the film exhilarating and progressive, Curtis obviously had quite a different reaction – although of course he was a deeply troubled young man and his unfortunate decision was already on the cards. Just thought I’d share….