A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
by Dan Schneider

There has never been a filmmaker remotely like Werner Herzog. He blends fiction and nonfiction in ways no filmmaker before or since has done, and almost always it works, and works exceedingly well. Who else could craft memorable films with the psychotic actor Klaus Kinski? Make a ‘science fiction’ documentary (Lessons of Darkness) about the burning oil wells of Gulf War One? Craft an oddly moving, if undefinable film (Even Dwarfs Started Small) using a cast comprised solely of midgets and dwarfs? Make Count Dracula seem pathetic (Nosferatu the Vampyre)? Make a man obsessed with moving a boat over a mountain into one of film’s great achievements (Fitzcarraldo)? Or make a film (Grizzly Man) about an idiot who is so dumb he gets eaten alive by the grizzly bears he seeks to "protect," and make it work? No one.

But, if all that were not enough, consider his two films made with Bruno S., the mentally ill, vagabond street musician and part-time forklift driver who was abandoned to orphanages, insane asylums, and prisons most of his life. The first film Herzog cast him in was 1974’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, in which Herzog skillfully used Bruno’s real life dysfunctions to his advantage. The final film in which Bruno appeared was 1977’s Stroszek, after Herzog initially wanted to use Bruno in Woyzeck, the eventual 1979 film he later decided to cast Klaus Kinski in. Herzog decided to repay Bruno for disappointing him by writing the screenplay for Stroszek, reportedly in just four days, although given Herzog’s penchant for tall tale telling, this is to be taken with the proverbial salt grain.

The film follows a mentally deficient character just released from prison, whose name is Bruno Stroszek; a surname Herzog first used in his brilliant 1968 feature debut Signs Of Life. Herzog has claimed the reason he gave the two films’ lead characters the name Stroszek was because he was paying back a classmate in college, of that same name, who did some assignments for him. All the rest of the characters basically use their real names, as well further blurring the fictive line of the film. Bruno (or Der Bruno, as Stroszek refers to himself) is a drunk and a street musician (playing the glockenspiel and accordion) in Berlin, who was jailed for unspecified crimes, presumably petty. Upon his release, he promises not to drink, immediately heads for a bar called Beer Heaven, then returns to his apartment with a local prostitute he is friends with. She is Eva (Eva Mattes), and when they return to his apartment, kept for Bruno by his neighbor Herr Scheits (Clemens Scheitz, an early Herzog film regular), it is in poor condition. Scheitz is a small, mentally ill man, as well, who has kept Bruno’s pet bird Beo for him. He is planning to move to Wisconsin, in the United States, to live with his nephew, Clayton (Clayton Szalpinski), a car mechanic, whom he met on a trip to Rammstein Air Force Base. He feels that there is nothing left in Germany for him.

Bruno and Eva agree they will go, but Eva needs to make money hustling on her own so they can all leave. This enrages a couple of her pimps (Wilhelm Von Hamburg and Burkhard Driest) who harass and beat her and Bruno mercilessly. Finally, the trio save enough to sail to the New World. They arrive in New York, where Beo is confiscated by customs officials. They buy a beater car and drive to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, in the winter. (Railroad Flats is a classic truck stop town, but it is fictive. In reality it is Plainfield, Wisconsin, the hometown of the psychopathic Ed Gein, a serial murderer and necrophile who inspired the films Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.) Once there, Bruno becomes an auto mechanic’s assistant to Clayton, a man who yanks a sore tooth from his mouth with auto tools, Eva works as a waitress, and Scheitz goes off to perform bizarre experiments in animal magnetism. There have been four or five murderers in the county, and the implication is that there is something about the environs that drives locals mad.

The trio buys a trailer home and a color TV, but cannot keep up on the payments, as a sleazy bank loan officer (Scott McKain) threatens repossession. Scheitz and Bruno slowly lose their minds, although Bruno actually has several moments of brilliant lucidity during his slide, the most cogent being where he says to Eva that the Nazi brutality he grew up with was out in the open (he recounts an episode from youth where he was publicly humiliated for urinating in bed) whereas American brutality is in the fine print of contracts and smiles of soul killing sycophants like the bank’s loan officer. The American Dream is a lie for him, just as it has been for millions of other natives and immigrants.

The DVD, by Anchor Bay, is part of their Werner Herzog Collection, and comes with a theatrical trailer, production and biographical notes, and a great commentary with Herzog and Norman Hill. In it, Herzog spins his usual informative and cogent anecdotes, rips conventional filmmaking techniques, and resents the tendency of critics to deconstruct every little thing in a film. Not every metaphor has to be based in logic. The Keatsian idea of negative capability has never been better embodied in the work of a filmmaker than it is in Herzog’s canon, for many of his images simply are, and do not have a narrative heft. In this film, the perfect example is a dancing chicken near the end. It can mean a number of things, but the very act of attempting to pin it down robs it of some of its power.

The DVD's German is subtitled, and the English is not. As a multi-lingual film dubbing would not work. The film transfer is fine, and it is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. While not a film that makes great use of visuals, there are moments, such as the film’s opening, shot through a glass of water, that show that Herzog and his cinematographer Thomas Mauch knew how to distort reality just enough to blur fiction and nonfiction seamlessly. The use of American folk music from Chet Atkins and Sonny Terry is a departure from the grander musical schemes employed with Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh in other Herzog classics, but is a propos for the dour American grotesques that creep into the film, such as the shotgun-wielding farmers who drive their plows right next to each other, to protect a small strip of land both claim as theirs.

The real gem of the commentary is Herzog’s explanation of not only the film’s provenance in regards to Bruno S., but how he chose the town in the first place. He calls that part of the country Errol Morris Country because he and the famed American documentarian (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog Of War) were fascinated by Ed Gein, who dug up all of the corpses in a circle around his mother’s grave. They wanted to know if he dug up his mother. What relevance this has is anyone’s guess. Morris chickened out, so Herzog decided to abandon the idea and write his screenplay for Bruno, thus angering Morris, who felt that he should have had some involvement, and that Herzog tread on his "turf"’ by filming there. While in Plainfield to write the screenplay, Herzog met many of the non-actors who populate the film. Herzog also relates gems about Bruno, such as his painting fan blades the colors of the rainbow, and discovering that when it spun fast it blurred into white, or how he would walk about with his fly open, unawares.

The use of non-actors is perfect. When Scheitz’s nephew, Clayton, starts talking about fucking women, in the garage, to Bruno and his American Indian helper (Ely Rodriguez), no actor could really get as into the moment as Clayton does, with his grunts and gesticulations--a natural idiocy that only documentarians like Morris have ever captured, such as in Gates Of Heaven. Similarly, when Eva comes back to Bruno’s apartment, she worries over coffee stains that he might make on his old out-of-tune piano. It is in minor details like this, that veer away from script and allow actors to fully embody their characters, that the realistic aspects of a film can shine. Most filmmakers would never even consider them to be of import.

Herzog also follows in the path of another great filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu, in allowing narrative ellipses to occur. For example, in one scene Bruno confronts Eva in a café with her pimps. The more gaudy looking pimp leads Bruno out of the café by the ear, and wails to Eva that "that moron" is on his back. We have no idea what being on the pimp’s back could mean, since the pimp could easily dispatch Bruno, and we hardly suspect Bruno would dare harass the larger man, but it gives us a glimpse into Bruno that we later see revealed in his dogged determination to accomplish things. This is also reflected in a later scene where Bruno is despondent, sees his former prison doctor, and is shown premature babies who have a tenacious grip reflex. They are real infants, and the shots of a baby clinging to the doctor’s fingers, as the baby rises in the air, are remarkable. Hollywood would never allow such a shot for liability purposes and claims of child abuse. Yet this is standard Herzog fare, and why films such as Stroszek are important, and transcend the formulae of most Hollywood. That Werner Herzog’s films exist is something we should all be grateful for, lest people like Bruno S. and Clemens Scheitz would be further marginalized in this society which worships youth, beauty, and conformity above all else. Films like Stroszek are merely minor palliatives for that ill, but they are better than nothing, and hopefully will last longer than the grim impulses which make them so cogent.


©2009 Dan Schneider
CineScene