As this is an introduction, I will refrain from revealing plot details beyond the synopsis. I hope this contextualization and set-up is enticing enough to get some people to watch this film, which I count amongst my favourites
StroszekDirected by Werner Herzog1977Germany
In 1970, while watching a documentary (Bruno der Schwarze), Werner Herzog became fascinated with it’s subject, a street musician from Berlin named Bruno Schleinstein (often known just as Bruno S.). Bruno had suffered from an abusive childhood, and had spent most of his life in mental institutions. He was self taught and could play the piano, accordion, glockenspiel and handbell. Herzog sought out this eccentric figure and cast him in one of the filmmaker’s greatest works, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, wherein Bruno played the title character. Upon completing that film, Herzog was still in awe of Bruno S. and his remarkable personality and presence on screen, which in my opinion syncs perfectly with the odd stylistic tone imposed by Herzog. Indeed, Bruno S. is just as notable as the oft-mentioned Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski. Thus, Herzog promised Bruno another role, this time in an adaptation of the play Woyzeck. However, upon finding out that Kinski was interested in playing the lead, Herzog canceled his plans with Bruno and made the film without him. Crushed by the news, Bruno complained to Herzog extensively about how he had already booked unpaid vacation time, and was in serious trouble. Devastated by what he had done, Herzog vowed to write a film specifically for Bruno and four days later, the script for Stroszek was completed.
Stroszek is a brilliant parodic take on the American dream, complete with an auction (what Herzog refers to as the “poetry of capitalism”), a trailer, a truck-stop, hunters, farms, a frozen turkey and ironic Americana music cues. The film demonstrates Herzog at his most humorous, however darkly. At its core, the film is somewhat sinister, and harbors a searing view of not just the American dream, but all dreams; a look at the prison the world can be. The film is clearly built around Bruno S., and while the film certainly contains mostly invention, it succeeds as an articulation of this man’s soul, his hopes, dreams, and his struggle. As always, Herzog is more interested in the usage of fabrication in order to achieve a greater effect, an ecstatic truth. To him, truth and fiction are one in the same when it comes to cinema, and nearly all of Herzog’s documentaries contain this use of fabrication.
The film starts off in Berlin, with Bruno being released from an institution, being urged to stop drinking. Of course, his first stop after leaving is a bar, where one of the least romantic on-screen relationships will begin to unfold. Eventually, Bruno, his girlfriend Eva, and his friend Scheitz choose to set out for the greener grass of the United States. Unbeknownst to them, America will prove a less than ideal place to live that is far from welcoming.
Like with all of Herzog’s films, it is rather difficult to put it into words. As Herzog himself has stated, one cannot adequately articulate cinema through words; at least not true cinema, and indeed ecstatic truth is something inexplicable, something intangible. For those unacquainted with the film, what you will discover is one of the most enigmatic filmmakers, using his most enigmatic subject, to make one of his most enigmatic films. Bruno S. is a truly fascinating person, and to my mind one of the most endearing in all of cinema. Clearly Herzog is aware of this, and refers to Bruno as someone who “has something magnificent about him, the magnificent of someone who has been beaten too much, and has been tortured, and has gone through a catastrophe, something that nothing and no one on this earth can take away and extinguish”.
Using both the pain and beauty of Bruno S., Herzog crafts a film of considerable power, culminating with one of the most bizarre sequences (can’t stop the dancing chicken) I’ve ever seen. The uniqueness of Herzog’s films is unquestionable. His presence is always felt; everything recorded by Herzog’s camera always feels like an articulation of himself, no matter what else he is also articulating. Through the lens of Werner Herzog, our world is always made strange, and through that strangeness he finds the profound, and the true.
Adam very interesting intro.
My girlfriend has taken over my netflix with bellydance dvds (she is a bellydancer)
I prob wont get to see this film till next week. If it helps I was not crazy about yr opponets film so u may well get my vote
Whoa Den, I feel your pain….
Great intro Adam, brought back some memories.
I love the Polish film poster. Thanks for the introduction, Adam. It’s interesting that Herzog had first thought of Bruno S. when he decided to adapt Büchner’s “Woyzeck”, and although Kinski adapted the role perfectly (as he did as Robard’s replacement in “Fitzcarraldo”), it would have been another ideal role for him as well as it tells us a lot about the characteristics that must have fascinated Herzog about Bruno S. Stroszek as Woyzeck always feels misplaced wether he is in Germany and mistreated by the gang, or in the States where his girlfriend cheats on him and the estate agent takes everything away from him. His friend Scheitz who talks about Schopenhauer seems just as misplaced as he himself, and alone Eva manages to somehow attune. The allegorical ending is dark and fascinating, and invites to various interpretations, overall the film might be one of Herzog’s most depressing works. I can see why Ian Curtis chose this as the last film to see before he comitted suicide, to a certain extent he must have identified with Bruno Stroszek.
I’ve heard Stroszek described as a film about the American Dream failing, or turning in to the American Nightmare, though I think to count this as an attack against the United States is to overlook some of what happens in the film, and any socially-minded content is overwhelmed by the emotional content of the film (and this is not a bad thing). Much of the tragedy that occurs occurs through Stroszek’s belief that he can get by in the United States without learning the language instead steadfastly sticking to speaking German – his fate is as much his fault as anyone elses. And don’t forget that things were no easier back in Berlin. The raid of his house, and the attacks that are launched on his girlfriend, are both horrific incidents. Is there anywhere where Stroszek could have been happy?
Instead I like to think of the film as more about the mayhem of the world, of how humans are very much animals, of this man who is seemingly destined for sadness, or at least loneliness, and of his unrequited love for the prostitute Eva, how this unrequited love is his one chance at fulfillment and how inevitably it will not be a smooth ride. It plays out as one of the lightest of tragedies, very touching and upsetting yet also with only a few moments dwelling on misery and much time spent on the beautifully bizarre, or the satiric and at times even comedic bits scattered throughout the film.
At times the music felt a tad schmaltzy, though I can forgive this as I loved how gently laid out the tragedy is, I loved the moments of humour many of which you feel you shouldn’t be laughing at, the great performance by Bruno S. as Stroszek which catches a certain disconnect between him and the world around him, the impressive cinematography and the ending which was truly brilliant. I can’t say the film blew me away but I certainly hope that it will do one day as there is much to love here. Also dancing chickens.
Arbitrary rating: 8.5/10
Apursansar: Agreed. Definitely a depressing film, especially if you focus on the ending. However, the spirit of Bruno S., and sequences such as the one with the prematurely born baby provide some beauty.
Cecil: While it is a parodic take on the American dream, you are right to say it is not an attack on the United States. It is much more broad and profound than that. “The mayhem of the world” sounds right to me.
I’ve seen this film before and don’t have time to rewatch it because of so many other films in the competition I need to find time for, but I really wish I had time to re-watch it.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is probably one of my top five favorite films of all time, so I certainly have a love for the Herzog and Bruno S. pairing.
One of the best things about Herzog films are that the stories about the making of the film are always just as good as the film itself. I guess that’s part of Herzog’s wonderful vision of ecstatic truth only being found through a mix of fiction and non-fiction, both in his explicitly narrative films and explicitly documentary films. Both have the mix. Thus the commentary Herzog records for his movies are usually just as good or better than watching the actual film. Not to mention I just love the pronunciation and cadence of the man’s voice.
Let me describe what I remember Herzog saying about the history behind the Wisconsin sets in the film. At one time he and the great Errol Morris were planning on doing a document about about famous serial killer Ed Gein (they were good friends who one time conducted an interview with serial killer Edmund Kemper). I’m sure most of you have heard of Ed Gein, the man who Psycho and many other films were inspired by. He dug up dead women and made clothes and other things out of their body parts. He also had an obsession with his mother. Herzog and Morris made a pact to secretly dig up the grave of Gein’s mother to see if he had disturbed it at all. On the scheduled day Herzog showed up to the place in Wisconsin, but Morris never came.
During this trip to Wisconsin, Herzog had car trouble and brought his car to a mechanic. He couldn’t forget the owner and employee who worked on his car and their interesting relationship. When writing Stroszek he decided to set it in Wisconsin and return to the location around where he took this trip. When making the film he returned to the mechanic’s garage he had been to years before. He wanted to film in that same location and cast those same two mechanics in the film. He found the same owner still working there but couldn’t find the other employee. He inquired about the whareabouts employee with the owner, but the owner initially couldn’t remember who he was talking about. After much long discussion the owner finally remembered the person Herzog remembered was a man the owner had hired for one day, and they got along so poorly that he fired him the next day. Herzog was surprised because he felt like their relationship was so interesting and strong when he met them. Herzog managed to track down the other man, and ended up casting them both in the film. When one of the guys in the film pulls out his own tooth, this is REAL!!! Herzog didn’t even script this from what I recall. The guy just had a toothache and said he was going to pull the tooth out so Herzog let him do it and filmed it.
I also have to say that “Can’t stop the dancing chickens. Send an electrician, we’re standing by.” has to be one of the best last lines in film history.
Risselada: Having listened to the commentary before, I can verify much of what you’re saying and I agree there are few greater pleasures than listening to Herzog. However, the pulling of the tooth was faked, despite the actor offering to do it for real. Herzog acquired a tooth from a dentist for usage in the scene. I remember Herzog mentioning he stole that moment from another film, but the title and filmmaker escapes me right now.
Ah thanks for the correction. I guess the part about the actor offering to do it exaggerated in my memory to him actually doing it. I didn’t mean to publish false information. Just was my recollection.
There are two aspects of Stroszek that I found unforgettable (well, three if you count the ending, but I’d rather let people discover that for themselves.)
First is the extraordinary musical interlude of Bruno S. singing and playing accordion. Whatever “acting” he may have done throughout the rest of the film, this scene feels so genuine and real. A glimpse into a unique personality.
Then we have the look and feel of the Wisconsin landscape. I can’t separate my reaction from the fact that I grew up in the North Chicago suburbs, just over an hour away from the border. Wisconsin has always been a convenient getaway and a place of complete normalcy. Herzog films it as if it were an alien wasteland. This has one effect when applied to the Amazon, which from my perspective, would already be considered exotic, but it’s fascinating to watch a place so familiar filmed as if it were a strange foreign land.
I’m glad you mention the strangeness of the location, Brad. That Herzog is able to achieve this effect in so many of his films and so many different places is fascinating.
Bump in time for voting
I have been a fan of Herzog since Grizzly Man, and have worked my way back through the masterpice Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: Wrath of God and finally to Stroszek.
I’m fascinated to learn the history of Herzog and the actor in this film. Given his history it doesn’t surprise me a bit. Herzog has a knack for finding individuals with extreme personalities and capturing their essence on film in a lasting way. This film is no different.
One of the highest compliments I can give to the film is that I’d actually like to mee Bruno S. and buy the man a beer.
Or 12. Or maybe just a chicken dance.
Yes, I agree with Brad about one of the greatest strengths of the film being the way it shows the US as a foreign land. The ubiquity of US culture around the world sometimes makes it seem as if the US is the “natural” place to be, or the place that determines “normal” for the rest for the world, but a film like Stroszek can show “here” as being every bit as alien a place as the furthest reaches of Mongolia to many people. A film like Jarmusch’s Mystery Train attempts a somewhat similar effect, but its diction remains American even if the Japanese couple doesn’t fully grasp the language. Instead of making the visitor as the other, Herzog manages to make the place itself seem strange and unworldy even to those of us who live here, while at the same time keeping it recognizably “true” to various aspects of life we do come across here in the states.
Stroszek is far and away my favorite of Herzog’s films. I’ve always been fascinated by the locations the film uses to represent America—chiefly Plainfield, Wisconsin, whose best-known resident was murderer/grave robber Ed Gein, but also (for me at least) also evocative of the photographs in Michael Lesy’s “Wisconsin Death Trip,” originally published a few years before the film, from 19th century Black River Falls (another central Wisconsin town); and, Cherokee, North Carolina (sort of a superficial point of contact between a more “original” American culture and the current iteration, and still bizarre today, though less esoterically so since they built Harrah’s Cherokee Casino there).
Only because it has yet to be mentioned, I’ll bring up one of Herzog’s most extraordinary shots. The scene where the doctor shows Bruno the prematurely born baby is stunning. Not only are landscapes made alien by Herzog, but so is our species! This infant is also rendered strange by his camera, but the sequence is also very affecting and very beautiful. When the baby’s oddly strong grip reflex is demonstrated, reflecting Bruno in that because his coming into the world was such “a hard fall”, he also has an unnaturally strong grip of some kind, I find myself moved to no end.
An incredible shot. One of the most moving shots of the film.
I love hearing Herzog attempt to verbally articulate his ideas, such as the shot with the baby. It seems Herzog is never fully conscious of his own metaphors, and at most is usually only able to say “there is some truth to this scene”. When referring to the dancing chicken, I believe he said “it is a metaphor but for what I don’t know”. He said the same about the boat going over the mountain in Fitzcarraldo. Why this strikes me is I think the profundity of Herzog’s images is that they only exist as images, not born from a fully conceived thought. Herzog’s greatest thoughts are thought visually; pure cinema.
That’s a good observation, Adam. In some senses, I think that, if its meaning can be fully articulated, it’s not that good of a metaphor.
Weird to think the next time Herzog shot a fictional feature in the US set in the present it was his two films last year!
Ah, very true! I can’t believe how long it is taking for My Son My Son to make it over here. I want to see it!
What about the name itself – Stroszek? There’s a story running where does it come from. Btw, it’s not the first time Herzog used the name here – in Signs of Life, his feature debut, there’s a character going by the same name. Herzog said somewhere (I believe it’s in Herzog on Herzog, ed. Paul Cronin) that once he went to university for some time (a year, not more, I believe) and he had to write an essay. He was not really enthusiastic about it and there was this guy, Stroszek. Herzog asked him to write the essay for him promising him to make his name famous. Et voilá.
God knows if it’s truth or not, anyway, it’s a nice story, one of a million by Herzog. For anybody interested in those, check out the Herzog on Herzog book (if you didn’t by now), it’s really great.
Anyway, I think there are few (if any) endings for a film that could stand up to the dancing chicken.
(And about Bruno S.: if I remember correctly, Herzog has said, that while shooting Kaspar Hauser Bruno always wanted to sleeep on the floor next to the door, so he could quickly escape in case something bad was happening. Who could verify all those stories? Herzog /at least for me/ is a great example of a man-becoming-myth.)
With reference to a man becoming a myth, many of you might be familiar with Herzog’s little book, Walking on Ice – a strange, captivating journal of him travel from Munich to Paris on foot in the dead of winter to meet the ailing Lotte Eisner. I dare say no filmmaker would ever write a book like this!
In general, I think I didn’t encounter a single Herzog’s narration (interview, book, film commentary, discussion following screening, screening introduction, etc.) that wouldn’t be fascinating for me. He simply has a gift to captivate…
Almost every time I hear a sub-par commentary track on a DVD I think to myself, “I wish they had gotten Werner Herzog to record the track for this”. Even if the man had absolutely nothing to do with the movie, I’d rather hear his insights and strangely soothing voice.
i apologise for my ignorance in advance, but is there an english version of this film? i have wanted to see this film for so long but have only found the german version.
and I found it. was out and about today and came across it in the window of a used book/dvd store. what a fascinating film. i also found a copy of The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. Just going to view it in a few minutes.
Might i add, i am so happy that I found this site. I am very much looking forward to being able to discuss films with you all.
best wishes to each of you.
another small detail to be considered is the use of Bruno’s music, when he plays it, accordion, bell, piano, etc as his escape from “his” reality, “his” life and the now infamous ending, with the chickens and the instruments as a metaphor for his escape from “this” reality, “this” life.
yes, adam, you’re right to say and i’ve heard him myself in interviews not being able to specifically articulate the imagery he intents to provoke with his metaphors,BUT, i think that IS the point of being a creative artist other than a writer; you explain things with the means that come to you first; for herzog, it’s an image, a situation.
i have my own suspicions, but would like to throw it out there, a little discussion about the frozen turkey.
all opinions are welcome.