Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Werner Herzog's STROSZEK (1977)

Welcome to Werner Herzog's America. Your tour guide is Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), an ex-con street musician with a prostitute for a girlfriends and her erstwhile pimps hassling him. His life in Berlin is wretched apart from his occasional musical ecstasies, so when his eccentric (a redundant term in Herzog's world) neighbor Herr Scheitz decides to move to the U.S. to live with a cousin, Bruno and his girlfriend Eva (Eva Mattes) decide to try their luck in the land of the free. From New York they travel to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, where Bruno becomes a mechanic and Eva becomes a waitress. Expecting too much too soon, they buy a prefab house and furnish it on credit, but can't keep up payments on their small salaries. Before long Eva is hooking again and Bruno loses his house. He and Herr Scheitz embark on a criminal spree, robbing a barber shop. The old man is nabbed at the very next stop, a grocery store, but the cops ignore Bruno in another aisle. With a frozen turkey in tow he lights out for the territory in a stolen tow truck, his trail ending in a tourist trap and a final ascent into the hills on a chair lift. There is, of course, also a dancing chicken, and another that plays a miniature piano.

The journey of Bruno S(troszek)
1. Berlin
2. The Empire State Building
3. Somewhere in Wisconsin

On the Anchor Bay commentary track, Herzog attempts to explain his typical compulsive inclusions, observing that he instantly saw the sideshow chickens as a metaphor without really knowing what they stood for. The great man is perhaps being disingenuous here, since the juxtaposition of the barnyard creatures imitating human entertainment and the consummation of Bruno's failures probably wouldn't seem that mysterious to the moviemakers or moviegoers of the olden days of silent cinema. Herzog's sensibility has often struck me as being about a century behind the times -- and that's often a good thing. That archaic sentimentalism marks Stroszek as an oldschool play for pathos, with Mr. S. (an authentic crank whom Herzog had first cast as Kaspar Hauser) as the sort of grotesque everyman -- paradoxically a universal figure because he's so particular but not generic -- that used to be commonplace in silent comedy above all.

Like many a pathetic hero, Bruno is humiliated by bullies like this allegedly authentic pimp and ex heavyweight boxer.

Herzog's approach to America, his quest for authentic locations, his readiness to recruit ordinary people for bit parts without even asking for their names, all remind me of the old Mack Sennett approach to guerrilla filmmaking. But Herzog eschews the Keystone quest for the belly laugh in search of the extreme, almost self-parodying pathos of someone like Harry Langdon. The director is clearly driven to make his film both funny and sad as an expression of his own grim compassion for the world's outsiders and misfits. Stroszek is on some level Herzog's satire of Charlie Chaplin's more optimistic Mutual short The Immigrant -- a denial of America's redemptive potential for every newcomer. The fault lies not with America (Herzog is more insistent on that point in his commentary) but with ourselves, if we're damaged goods like Bruno and Eva, but Stroszek isn't interested in blaming its characters for their failures, or anyone for anything. Herzog accepts America, Germany, the world and its people as they are; he practically wallows in it all. But his audience can have it both ways because Herzog is technically an unsentimental filmmaker. He doesn't cue your emotions with music, and his star is an undemonstrative personality. The grotesquerie on display in Stroszek may merely amuse or it may arouse the compassion Herzog probably intends -- but that seems to be up to each viewer.

While not really a statement about America, Stroszek boasts indelible images of the country in the 1970s, a place and time I recognize in cinematographer Thomas Mauch's images even though I've never been anywhere near Wisconsin. Herzog is clearly inspired by a certain drab tackiness that now signifies the first stage of national decline, and his film is as much a document of that moment as any American-made film. His empathetic portrayal of a loser isn't exactly alien to the American cinematic sensibility of the era, either. Bruno never speaks a word of English in the picture, if memory serves, but in many respects Stroszek qualifies as an honorary American film from one of the nation's peak movie epochs. It may not have quite enough plot for some viewers, but I imagine Herzog would happily echo Mark Twain in warning that anyone seeking a plot will be shot.

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