As imagined by Georg Buechner, Woyzeck seems to be an archetypal victim, a "little man" oppressed by everything around him. Brutalized by his superior officers, patronized and mocked by his Captain, experimented upon by the local doctor, cheated on by the mother of his child, bullied and cuckolded by the alpha-male drum major, he breaks down under the incessant pressure, struggling to please and be all things to all people until he can't take it any more.
Playing against type (at least the typecasting of our imagination), Kinski incarnates the universal victim. This is established during the opening credits, when the camera focuses on him struggling to do push-ups while the booted feet of an unseen officer repeatedly stomp on him. He spends the entire film in a state of unfocused agony, his face like a medieval woodcut of allegorical despair. You would believe that he's a man on a bad diet -- the doctor has convinced him to subsist for months entirely on peas, though he might soon graduate to mutton. And this being Kinski, you have no problem believing that he's going mad -- you might only ask "going mad?" But there's clearly a process of deterioration going on as Woyzeck struggles to articulate ill-digested ideas from his superiors while suffering from worsening delusions. In time the very earth is telling him to kill, and he obeys.
Herzog was working on the fly and on the cheap here, but his ascetic style is well-suited for such a place. Many of the scenes are single long takes, as when Woyzeck barbers the Captain and tries to defend himself from the charge that he lacks virtue. One classic Herzog bit is the performance of a "learned horse" in a local carnival. Getting it all in as few shots as possible makes obvious the extent to which the beast's apparent intelligence results from his master's manipulation. We're clearly meant to compare this with Woyzeck's fumbling efforts to obey orders, conform, or absorb the ideas of those around or above him.
The big moment when Herzog attempts to make a virtue of his low budget is the climactic murder scene. The director either has no means to pull off stabbing effects or no desire to do so. Instead, the camera remains focused on Kinski's grisly mask of a face as he "stabs dead" repeatedly into a body below the camera frame, at first seeming confused that he hasn't killed with one blow, then getting into the rhythm of the attack. We're back to the most fundamental horror, left to our own imagination of what Woyzeck has wrought.
If the film seems to end abruptly (and it's only 80 minutes long), that's because Herzog apparently quit where Buechner's play stops. Other hands have attempted to finish the story in different forms (there have been other plays, an opera, and a Tom Waits musical), but Herzog is satisfied to leave us with a corpse and a vanished Woyzeck --perhaps illustrating the complete disintegration of his protagonist. He's told what he wanted to tell. Modern audiences might demand more victims, but by 19th century aesthetic standards Woyzeck does more than enough, and in the film the horror doesn't multiply by body count but through a metastasis of madness in Kinski's face.
Woyzeck defines grim. Herzog's archaic sensibility guarantees an authentic-seeming experience of the seedy side of the 19th century, and the Czech town he filmed in is a completely convincing location. The soundtrack combines recognizable period classics with the astringent dance music of a string band of presumably authentic period instruments. Eva Mattes as Woyzeck's woman won an award at the Cannes film festival and earned it by telling a group of children what is probably the bleakest fairy tale ever told. Kinski seals the deal with an intensely physical, choreographed performance. Contrary to his wild reputation, his every move here seems carefully thought out for dramatic and artistic effect. As the Captain says of Woyzeck, running through creation like a razor as he does, he's bound to cut someone. Herzog and Kinski alike are very sharp here. Score another one for the Albany Public Library with this addition to its foreign film collection.