Let’s just say that it is good to watch something as potentially inaccessible as Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck with friends who know something about the work for which it is based. As someone unfamiliar with Herzog’s and Klaus Kinski’s film work—this is my first look at their tumultuous yet epic cinematic partnership—and clueless on the story this movie portrays, a post-screening discussion was much appreciated. Especially since the group I watched with is putting on an abstracted, and most likely absurdist, performance of the play, their explanation of back-story was very helpful. You see, playwright Georg Büchner had passed on before his work could be published in any complete way. As a result, his finished pages have been reassembled multiple times by a number of artists and writers. I guess it is a well-known phenomenon to know that certain scenes are unnecessary and others can be moved around, yet still be Woyzeck. This ability to become new with every iteration has caused the work to become one of the most performed German plays ever and, as it is here from Herzog, an often confusing yet captivating piece of art.
Shot very theatrically, from the use of multiple static setups—don’t be surprised to view a scene from an unmoving position while the actors come close to the lens, distorting somewhat, before they move back into frame—to the bombastic acting. Josef Bierbichler is the guiltiest here as the Drum Major our titular Franz Woyzeck’s love Marie has an affair with, but both Wolfgang Reichmann and Willy Semmelrogge as the Captain and Doctor respectively don’t fall too far behind him. The acting works for certain scenes, adding a sense of artifice like an interesting monologue by a drunk outside a bar, waxing poetic about how humanity is evil. There truly is a sense of the beyond as though we are watching an alternate universe with every aspect familiar yet slightly off-kilter. This effect is amplified by the camerawork, allowing for some excruciatingly long scenes depicting the breakdown of the human soul. Even from the opening credits, watching Kinski’s Woyzeck do push-ups while constantly being kicked for way too long, we experience some fantastic acting as a result. No scene is more memorable than the murder of Marie, shot in slomotion while an orchestral piece plays, drowning out all sound. You can get lost in Kinski’s eyes as he goes from love to anger to malice to regret. The tears welling up as we just stare at him in close-up without a cut. It’s just a powerhouse-acting clinic.
Perhaps I should delve into the story a bit. Remember, though, this description comes from both the film and reading an online synopsis of the play because Herzog doesn’t feel the need for exposition. Woyzeck has fathered a child with his mistress Marie, a fact that the entire town knows. In order to support them, he begins to do odd jobs for his military Captain—shaving him for instance—and participates in clinical studies with a local doctor, the current experiment being that he eats only peas. Woyzeck is beaten physically and emotionally until he can take no more. Breaking from reality, he starts to hear and see things; anger boils inside him, unable to stay there as the voices beg him to let it out. Like a trained lab animal, Woyzeck drifts off into his thoughts, but is at the ready when spoken to by a superior officer—posture straight and all “yes sirs”. He is no longer a man of free will; everything he does is either an order, a remark made to plant the seed, or his insanity speaking out to him.
There are many existential aspects throughout with outside forces assailing him without an ability to stop them. He becomes the circus trick so blatantly metaphoric to a dressed-up monkey and mathematical genius horse in a scene that contains the most glaringly strange cut of Marie basically leaving her child and Woyzeck to sit all giggly with the Drum Major two rows back. Used and abused by society, Woyzeck is a stand-in for what stronger people have been doing to the weak for centuries. Made into a parlor trick, an entertainment for those who wield control over him, this man is at the mercy of no longer differentiating between right and wrong. It is an interesting thing done by Herzog in that he doesn’t show us the man before the insanity. Rather, we are introduced to Woyzeck at the cusp of his tipping point, almost saying that we are all there, just waiting to be pushed over. To be human, therefore, is to be fragile enough to allow yourself to be manipulated from emotion, to be led astray. I’d almost even go so far as draw a metaphor to the Holocaust, but that may be just because I recently saw The Reader and have been inundated with WWII flicks for the past few months. However, from the couple anti-Semitic remarks to the fact that Woyzeck imagines heavy smoke and hears voices crying, not to mention moments of calling out a big crowd as being guilty, soon to be punished themselves, I couldn’t help but think of German guilt and a people unable to grasp their role in that enormous tragedy.
In the end though, this is Herzog’s vision of the story: a man lost and left alone by society rather than embraced and brought inside it. Someone so troubled that he would kill the one thing he loved above all else, whose insanity leaves him unsure of how to even dispose of the murder weapon. After throwing the knife into the river, he follows it deeper and deeper, telling himself they might find it. I originally thought this was him going to his death by drowning, (verified when reading a play synopsis), however, when the police are shown at the end, I thought the man at the left was Woyzeck there to identify the body. And the river wasn’t very wide, so he’d have gotten to the other side. Either way, it concludes with written text superimposed over the image speaking of how it had been so long since they’ve had a murder quite like this. Even here, Woyzeck is proven to be the catalyst for a demented storybook ending, the cause of a new spectacle for the people to see. Society has become so lost that rather than see the human tragedy of a dead woman, they just see the excitement of a murder and all that goes along with it. Humanity has decided to sever ties with itself, death just another stage of life to be gawked at by outsiders, the value of the soul all but gone.