Werner Herzog’s STROSZEK (1977) [8/10]

Stroszek today is rather less well-known than several other Werner Herzog films from his 70s heyday (including Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Heart of Glass; The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Nosferatu), though it’s enjoyed considerable partial ‘exposure’ in recent years thanks to brief excerpts from the closing scenes included in both Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) and Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007).

In both instances, the extracts appeared during sequences dealing with the suicide of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis – who reportedly watched a late-night 1980 BBC transmission of Stroszek  a few hours before committing suicide. (For the benefit of younger readers: this was back in the distant days when the BBC actually showed subtitled, ‘difficult’ art movies on its ‘terrestrial’ channels.)

Reports also state that Curtis listened to Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot, and consumed large quantities of alcohol after viewing the film – so the precise “influence” of Stroszek upon his state of mind and his drastic actions can now only be a matter of speculation. It’s surely of more than passing relevance, however, that Herzog’s picture traces the disastrous results of a mentally-unstable European singer’s decision to flee to the USA, culminating with his apparent suicide – and Curtis watched it only days before he, along with the rest of Joy Division, was about to embark on their first ever American tour.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should in any way “blame” Stroszek, or writer/director/producer Werner Herzog, for Curtis’s actions. Indeed, it would be more reasonable to credit his work on this film with having a positive impact on those who’ve seen it – these include David Lynch, who recalls being dazzled by that 1980 BBC transmission when in Britain to make The Elephant Man.

And while Stroszek‘s story is essentially downbeat and tragic, this is in many ways a beautiful and tender film about a troubled individual trying to negotiate a harsh, unforgiving world. Indeed, it’s a little hard to reconcile that this was made by the same person who, only a few years before, had delivered unto the world the callous, exploitative Even Dwarfs Started Small – an enterprise which Herzog perhaps used to flush decades of bile, resentment and spite from his system.

There’s also the not-inconsiderable matter of Bruno S. (=Schleinstein) the non-professional actor whom Herzog had previously worked with on The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. He’s pretty much playing himself this time – an alcoholic former mental-institution inmate, eking out a living as a Berlin street-singer/accordionist after being released from jail – and Herzog reportedly gave him much latitude to improvise his lines.

Herzog’s most famous collaboration was with the professional actor Klaus Kinski, with whom he made five films, but while he has only completed two features (so far) with Mr S – his character, ‘Bruno Stroszek,’ always refers to himself in the third person, as “der Bruno” – it’s not unreasonable to suggest that this was at least as rewarding and effective instance of a director and actor working in particularly productive creative harmony.

Stroszek functions best as a tribute to Bruno S – it holds together less well when objectively assessed in terms of plot. The story, such as it is, isn’t afraid to embrace certain corny elements: many aspects of Bruno’s up-and-down, never-quite-sexual relationship with prostitute neighbour Eva (Eva Mattes) – whose brutal treatment at the hand of her pimps (both of them little more than two-dimensional caricatures) is a primary factor in their decision to emigrate to Wisconsin – provides a pretty rudimentary “motor” for what develops.

But once Stroszek, Eva – plus another neighbour, a crotchety, septuagenarian amateur-scientist (Clemens Scheitz) – make it to the States, Herzog’s attention wanders from storytelling to atmosphere, exploring some terrifically “uncharted” corners of the United States (particularly Ed Gein’s home-town of Plainfield, Wisconsin, here fictionalised as “Railroad Flats”) only a couple of months after its Bicentennial.

The USA of 1976 is, according to Herzog, not much of a “land of opportunity”, and Bruno – who upon leaving jail at the film’s start announces that he is now embarking on a new era of “freedom” – soon diagnoses that its abuses and cruelties are, if anything, worse than those of the Nazi Germany of his youth. This may strike many as being something of an overstatement – offensively so, perhaps – and Herzog’s fundamental “moral” is essentially a conservative one: better to stay at home and be humiliated by brutal Berlin pimps than venture abroad and risk entanglement in the American nightmare of exploitation.

But even when Bruno’s tale spirals into a cataclysm of disillusionment debt, despair, Herzog ensures that Stroszek has enough gallows humour to stop it from degenerating into a depressing gloom-fest. There’s the official appointed to sell off his home and television: real-life champion auctioneer Ralph Wade, whose lightning-fast patter has to be heard to be believed, a kind of folk performance-art that’s also a manifestation of America’s extreme mercantile culture.

And then there’s the climactic visit to a Native American reservation in South Carolina, where Stroszek discovers an old-school amusement-arcade in which trained birds perform in bizarre, miniature coin-operated tableaux vivants – clearly intended as a bald and brutally direct metaphor for how the USA treats its most hapless and helpless citizens.

Neil Young
 25th January, 2009

director : Werner Herzog
country : West Germany
year : 1977
run-time : 108m (BBFC)

seen : 18th January, 2009
cinema : The Star and Shadow, Newcastle, UK
format : 35mm
paid :  £4

MVP Colonel Ralph Wade
respected second opinion : Movie Gazette