Werner Herzog Season – Woyzeck (1979)
Of all the films contained within the BFI box set that forms the spine of this season I always assumed that Woyzeck would be a particularly demanding challenge. I’ve seen the film before of course and therein lies the trouble, because if I’m being brutally honest it is for me the most boring of Herzog’s films, even despite the presence of the uber-fiend himself, the one man roaring cyclone of arrogant narcissism that was Klaus Kinski. The film was shot in a brisk 17 days, immediately after the wrap on Herzog’s reiteration of Nosferatu, he successfully leveraging in funding for yet another project and therefore retaining the exhausted personnel for ease of logistics and recruitment convenience. We’ll get to Nosferatu next on the list, and yes I can’t wait to get my fangs into that movie given the recent news of another planned remake and the grisly theft of Murnau’s skull, but first if I’m to retain fidelity to the project I’ve got to find something to say about this rather bland and featureless picture. In the biography there has been some mild querying on some of Herzog’s perceived failings, perhaps the most glaring example being the distinct lack of women in significant roles in his pictures, the feminine serving as adjuncts and enablers of his imaginative outcasts and social pariahs. He quite calmly reflects upon then deflects the query with the simple statement that he can only make films about characters who strike a particular chord with him, and their gender brooks no specific part in this equation. That’s fair enough I suppose, to be fair in much of his documentary work the genders are a little more balanced, and his next film quite clearly features Nicole Kidman as the main heroine of the tale. But when watching Woyzeck I can’t help think that the character of Marie (one-time Fassbinder muse Eva Mattes) is somewhat side-lined, as the main object of Woyzeck’s fevered insane lust, and a larger portfolio of perspectives could have elevated the film’s topographical drama and interest.
Herzog has cited Woyzeck as his most Germanic of his films given that it’s based on a celebrated play by his fellow countryman Georg Büchner, and it has the feel of a film quickly assembled and photographed. According to the rather spare anecdata from the biography he consciously staged the film as a cluster of four-minute long takes, intending the camera movements to create the space between characters and motives, rather than stitching the film together in the editing booth. While this approach does give the film a regular, metronome tempo I just couldn’t connect to the characters and events unfolding with the design, maybe because I just couldn’t empathise with this grim-faced, muttering maniac. He is is Franz Woyzeck, a beleaguered and belittled soldier stationed in a pre-World War I garrison on the outskirts of a quiet, rural hamlet. Never one to keep it in his pants Woyzeck has sired a bastard child with his mistress Marie, a burden exasperated by a series of apocalyptic visions of the end of the world which are increasing in severity and intensity. Just to make sure this is a Herzog film Woyzeck also grapples with the regiment doctor who punishes his intransigent behaviour by forcing him on an experimental diet, where he can only consume peas. Such a diet bears amusing symmetry to the films palette, as the story is flat, and some colour and charge could have been brought to the drama and development had these hallucinations somehow been visualised, but I guess that didn’t interest Werner who preferred an interior struggle transmitted through performance a rather than flashy overt stylization which isn’t exactly his idiom.
I think some explanation from the man himself may be in order, when it comes to the visual approach of his movies ‘I need people who see and feel things as they are, not someone concerned with the making the most beautiful images possible. I don’t give much thought to a composition of an image; I focus instead entirely on what that shot is about and how it fits into the overall story. Everything else is irrelevant.’ This position makes a lot of logical sense, many of the greatest visual directors can construct breath-taking imagery (cough, Ridley Scott, cough) but almost always fall short on characters, on narrative, (cough, Michael Bay, cough) as although films are primarily a visual medium, they are also an empathic and storytelling vehicle as well – those images move, they’re not static like a canvas. However this still leaves me really struggling with this one, having given both the film and all of Herzog’s associated comments a shot I must admit humiliating defeat – I just didn’t care about Woyzeck and given his final treatment of others I’m not sure I supposed to. I prefer the Werner Herzog realms of mad dreamers and isolated idols to his mournful migration of lives crushed by social and cognitive bureaucracy. I’m clutching at straws maybe but some of the minutiae of turn of the century rural life is handsomely mounted, and he has the same fine eye for the odd detail that those American fictions also hold, and at a brisk 80 minutes it shouldn’t totally waste a viewing session.
What I have found fascinating as part of this entire season is the contextual context of the so-called German New Wave, a fascinating film movement that Herzog was unwittingly an instrumental member. The sphere of German arts was shell-shocked for many years by the Nazi atrocities, and any artist poking his head above the parapet would be beheaded to have the temerity to say anything like a human statement given his countries grievous recent history. This situation was exacerbated by that remorseless concrete and barbwire brisling wall that bisected Berlin, a potent symbol of oppression and division which you’d have thought would be imbued with all sorts of metaphoric and artistic energy. Cinematically speaking it was only in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that a coherent cultural force emerged, powered by the wunderlust of Wim Wenders, the amphetamine powered anger of the astoundingly prolific Fassbinder, and of course the lunatic visions of our very own Werner as the three main pillars to an ferocious film movement, willing to gaze directly into the guilty past and forge a vision ahead. Other, less known figures such as Volker Schlöndorff also mannaed the garrisons and I must admit to knowing little of his work other than the breakthrough The Tin Drum which was something of an art-house cross-over hit back in 1979, storming Cannes and capturing the first German accolade in over thirty years. So here are some further contextual diatribes, it never fails to amuse me that every indigenous filmmaker is almost always seduced by Hollywood to at least craft one English language film with the studios backing, unless they fully decant to California like Verhoeven, like Polanski did or the Scott brothers, or just flirt with the system like Louis Malle, Truffaut or even arch-miserablists like Haneke and Bergman. A watch list for the German New Wave is helpfully provided by our friends at Criterion here, next we’ll be getting nippy with Nosferatu;