"Stroszek" - Werner Herzog (1977)

Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977) is in my view one of the great films, but it has a difficult-to-categorize nature that has always made it a challenge for many viewers and as a consequence has led to its neglect.  Nevertheless, the film’s peculiar nature is precisely what makes it both an important work and a revelatory element of Herzog’s oeuvre.  The key idea here concerns the nature of expressionism.

Some people view Stroszek as a tragedy, while others see it as a comedy (an offbeat comedy, to be sure).  Others see it as a whimsical quasi-documentary on rural America.  Still others go further and see it as a more profound condemnation of American materialism.  The root cause of this viewpoint panoply can probably be credited to Herzog’s cinematic style, which delivers its expressionistic rendering in a unique fashion.

Expressionism, as I have outlined before [1], is a mode of artistic expression that externalizes the emotional state of the artist’s perspective onto the physical characteristics of the world in view.  The entire world is not presented “objectively” in a realistic fashion, but is instead shown in a subjective, often angst-filled, fashion that has the suggestive characteristics of a nightmare.  A celebrated example of expressionist art is Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” (1893) [2], which shows a world distorted with anxiety. 

Although expressionistic presentations have always been with us, the idea of Expressionism as an identified art movement took off in early 20th-century Germany, where it was quickly extended to the newly emerging film industry [1].  These early German Expressionist filmmakers shot their films entirely in the studio, where they could exercise full control over every aspect of their emotionalized external environments, including the use of carefully staged camera angles and lighting.  Since then, there has been a wide range of expressionistic films made all over the world, with the idea of an emotionally distorted external environment being a common feature.  But these films have essentially been fictional dramas.  Documentary films, which are presumably intended to present an objective view of reality, have been assumed to be out of the Expressionistic scope – that is, until Werner Herzog came along.

Herzog has been a leading figure in modern Expressionistic filmmaking, notably with his hypnotic features – Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Heart of Glass (1976), and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).  But Herzog has also made documentary films that are often coloured with expressionism (sometimes including dramatic recreations of what is thought to have happened), too, such as Fata Morgana (1971) and Lessons of Darkness (1992).  These films demonstrate that Herzog is always interested in a higher form of truth than objectivist documentary truth.  He is interested in the truths that we feel in our innermost being, the reality of which we cannot deny.  Into this mix we have to find a place for Herzog’s ambiguous Stroszek, which has a documentary flavor to it, but which is a fictional cinematic narrative with an Expressionistic stamp on it. 

In fact an intended documentary film lies in the background of how Stroszek came to be made.  The gifted documentary filmmaker Errol Morris became interested in the story of serial-murderer Ed Gein, who had horrifically captured the imagination of the American Midwest with his bizarre chain of grisly murders in the late 1950s (Gein’s character was the inspiration for the story and film, Psycho (1960)).  Morris, who was at the beginning of his career and had not yet made a single film, did extensive background research on Gein and managed to rope in Herzog to collaborate with him on a film about Gein.  In this connection Morris had arranged to meet Herzog in Gein’s hometown, Plainfield, Wisconsin, to investigate a cemetery there and to discuss their project.  Herzog showed up in Plainfield for the meeting, but Morris didn’t, and the two of them soon had a falling out, leading to Herzog’s withdrawal from the project (Morris’s Ed Gein film was never made).   However, while Herzog was staying for a few days in Plainfield, he became fascinated with the area’s people and local culture and decided to make a film there [3].

Herzog had the idea of building his film’s story, the script for which he wrote in four days, around his favourite actor, “Bruno S.” (Bruno Schleinstein), who had starred in Herzog’s earlier The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974).  Bruno Schleinstein was not a professional actor, and his personal story is key to the narrative artistry of both The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek.  Born in 1932 and abandoned as a baby to an orphanage, Schleinstein was subject to severe and repeated beatings as a child and spent 23 years (from age 3 to 26) in German mental and correctional institutions [4].  Because of the brutal circumstances of his upbringing, the boy developed an instinctively withdrawn (but still attentive) personality that was taken to be a sign of mental retardation.  Nevertheless, the boy taught himself how to play some instruments (piano, accordion, glockenspiel) and eventually managed to support himself as a street musician.  Herzog decided to base the lead character in Stroszek on Bruno Schleinstein’s real persona and then to create a cinematic imagination of what it would be like for this person to go to live in the American Midwest.

In order to ground his film in narrative authenticity, Herzog recruited most of the actors for Stroszek from ordinary local people he had encountered in Berlin and Plainfield, Wisconsin, and these people simply had to play themselves [5].  Although the overall story does have a basic narrative structure, the convincing spontaneity of the acting makes me suspect that a number of the scenes were extemporaneously crafted on the fly by Herzog and his actors.  This is what gives the film an aura of cinema-verite reality that evokes the feeling of watching a documentary.  Perhaps in some sense one is indeed watching a partial documentary when one sees Stroszek.

The story of Stroszek recounts the experiences of three down-and-out Germans who decide to join up and move to America:
  • Bruno Stroszek (played by Bruno S.) is essentially a portrayal of the real Bruno Schleinstein.  He is a street musician who has just been released from prison for some misdemeanours arising  from his tendency to drink too much alcohol. He is basically the same open-hearted character that Bruno S. played in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
  • Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) is an eccentric old neighbour of Stroszek who dreams up the plan of moving to America.  In real life, Clemens Scheitz, who was born in 1899, was a self-taught pianist.  His curious appearance and screen personality attracted Herzog’s eye, and he also appeared in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), Heart of Glass (1976), and Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979).
  • Eva (Eva Mattes) is an abused young prostitute down on her luck.  Eva Mattes, who was a onetime partner of Herzog, did have some previous acting experience, including some roles in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
The film’s narrative comprises three acts – (1) Problems in Berlin, (2) Early Happiness in Wisconsin, and (3) Dissolution and Collapse.
1. Problems in Berlin
At the outset Bruno Stroszek is released from prison and sternly warned by the warden to stay away from the bottle.  But Bruno immediately goes to a bar and runs into an old acquaintance, the prostitute Eva, who is being severely bullied and threatened by her two pimps (aka souteneurs).  Bruno offers Eva a haven in his apartment, but the cruel pimps go there to beat her up and Bruno, too.  Bruno’s neighbour, Scheitz, suggests that the three of them run away from their squalid lives in Berlin and move to the U.S., where his nephew can arrange for them to have jobs in his small town in Wisconsin.  Scheitz is clearly an eccentric old man and refuses to travel by plane, so they have to buy passenger tickets for sea travel.  Bruno and Eva, who are destitute, have nothing to lose and accept the offer.  But they need money for the tickets, so Eva calmly runs out to a local construction site and sells her body for cash to some Turks who are working there.  Then they travel to New York City.

2.  Early Happiness in Wisconsin  
After sightseeing in New York City and looking out at the huge wonders of the new country from the top of the Empire State Building, they buy a used car and drive to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin (this is fictitious name Herzog chose for Plainfield, Wis.).  Much of this act is devoted to the depiction of Midwestern small-town local colour, as Scheitz, Bruno, and Eva settle in to their new surroundings.  Only Eva can speak English, so she has to translate and explain to Bruno and Scheitz what she hears.

American Midwesterners are not cosmopolitan, but they are customarily open, friendly, and easygoing; and Herzog captures this characteristic behaviour perfectly by having his local actors  play themselves. Bruno begins working as an assistant in the auto workshop of Scheitz’s’ nephew Clayton (played by Plainfield local Clayton Szalpinski).  Eva gets a job as a waitress at a local truck stop.  Soon  they buy, on credit, a spacious mobile home and begin to celebrate their new happiness.  However, Bruno, who has led a life of misery, is a fatalist and worries that their joy will be short-lived.

3.  Dissolution and Collapse
Soon enough a courteous bank officer visits the trailer and tells them they are seriously behind on their credit payments.  Eva does her best by selling herself to truck drivers who pass through the truck stop where she works.  But Eva is getting bored and, to Bruno’s anguish, is no longer willing to sleep with him.  Eventually she decides to leave with some truck drivers and thereby abandon Bruno and Scheitz. 

Without Eva’s extra income, Bruno and Scheitz cannot meet their credit obligations.  The courteous bank officer comes again and gets the now inebriated Bruno to sign a document that he cannot even read authorizing the repossession of their mobile home.  Bruno and Scheitz are now homeless, penniless, and desperate. Scheitz, who is always addled with offbeat theories, asserts that they are victims of some vast conspiracy against them, and he grabs a rifle and gets Bruno to join him in a proposed bank robbery.  Finding the bank closed, they steal $32 from the barbershop next door and then mindlessly go to a 7-Eleven shop to buy groceries.  The police come quickly to the store and arrest Scheitz, but they don’t notice Bruno, and he gets away.

Now comes the memorable last fifteen minutes of the film, which almost constitute a separate narrative act.  Bruno goes back to the auto workshop with the rifle and his stolen frozen turkey and steals the tow truck there.  Then he hits the road.  We have no idea where he is going, and probably he doesn’t, either. After driving for some time and with his truck engine overheating, he stops in a small mountainside town and chats at a café with a German-speaking businessman.  Afterwards Bruno goes out and sets his truck autonomously circling in a parking lot.  Then he crosses the road and enters a temporarily unoccupied tourist shop that features an odd arcade of coin-operated “games” featuring dancing live chickens and rabbits, and also a ski chairlift that runs up the local mountainside.

Here Bruno sets some of the animal games in operation and then throws the switch launching the chairlift. Still with his rifle and frozen turkey in hand, Bruno hops into a moving chair and is the lone rider as it goes up the mountain.  Bruno’s truck finally blows up and catches fire. The police show up and struggle to deal with an out-of-control situation – a truck fire, a runaway ski lift, and the cacophony of dancing chickens.  The final shots of the film dwell on the mindlessness of the dancing animals trapped in their arcade cages.

Because of the naive and eccentric behaviour of the central characters Stroszek and Scheitz, there are many people who label the film Stroszek as a comedy.  I do not see it that way; to me the film is a presentation of the absurd – the intrinsic irrationality of human existence. Thus, continuing The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’s theme, Herzog in Stroszek also
“metaphorically explores our own existential and unaccountable thrownness into a world beyond our understanding” [6].
The way Herzog conducts this exploration here is intriguing, because he does not present the American context in a distorted fashion.  In this connection, it is interesting to compare Herzog’s portrayal of America with those of other foreign film directors who came to the United States to make a movie, such as Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point, 1970), Milos Forman (Taking Off, 1971), Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, 1984), and Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America, 1984).  Herzog’s portrayal of America is, to me, the most accurate and authentic of all.  And yet, Herzog still injects his expressionistic perspective.

How does Herzog do this?  How does he present the world realistically and yet employ Expressionism?  Remember that Expressionism normally portrays the external world with attributes from the perspective of the emotive onlooker.  This usually means that the external world is shown to be distorted from what would normally be considered to be objective reality. But in Stroszek, an objective, normal world is presented to abnormal-to-the-viewer characters in the film.  These abnormal characters (e.g. Stroszek and Scheitz) see the normal world in expressionistic terms.  We, the viewers, gradually come to see this “normal” world from the expressionistic vantage point of those characters, too.  When Herzog closes the film with shots of the dancing chickens, the images are to a certain extent mundane but also expressionistically horrifying.  And as I have mentioned earlier [6],
“Herzog is known to despise and fear chickens, and they must represent something overwhelmingly repulsive to him. Their relentlessly spasmodic movements and their often fierce, mindless savagery conjure up a sense of meaningless animal brutality.”
The animals in the game arcade were innocent, but their limited horizons meant that they had no understanding of their circumstances and the machines they were parts of.  Similarly, the limited horizons of Bruno, Scheitz, and Eva prevented them from successfully operating in the complex world around them.  And so, too, the American people around our protagonists were also innocent, but they were parts of a bigger competitive, capitalist machine that noone really fully understands. Thus today, for example, an essentially innocent population of voters, suffering from the same kind of limited horizons as Bruno, can elect a fascist despot who threatens to bring about the destruction of the entire civilized world.

This was Herzog’s melancholy lament in Stroszek. We are all cogs in this huge, incomprehensible machine.  Where are we going in this vast, mad, out-of-control vehicle?

  1. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   
  2. Edvard Munch, “The Scream”, (1893), Artsy.net.  
  3. Mark Wickum, “Production Notes”, Stroszek, Anchor Bay Entertainment, Inc. (2001). 
  4. Roger Ebert, “Stroszek”, RogerEbert.com,  (7 July 2002).   
  5. Marilyn Ferdinand, “Stroszek (1977)”, Ferdy on Films, (2007).    
  6. The Film Sufi, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - Werner Herzog (1974)”, The Film Sufi, (11 March 2010).  


BFM said...

The very best review that I've ever read of this important film. Amazed by the end to see that it was written just this year (2017), complete with a reference to Trump.

The Film Sufi said...

Thank you for your comment.

Tina Glynn said...

Watched this film two days ago and enjoyed it very much. Thanks to this excellent review I now understand it so much more. Especially interesting was the background of the main character. This totally explains why the performance was so realistic and so very poignant. I found the chicken image so powerful it will stay with me forever and I thought your interpretation of its meaning was truly eloquent. Thanks again.

Robert Maier said...

A great interpretation of a film that always mystified me. Gave me a much better understanding of expressionistic films I've loved so much. Herzog is my favorite filmmaker, and I see that virtually all his films are expressionistic. They are all expressions of his personal truths, but the truths are more intriguing than clear, like daring to walk through a dark cave-- fearful, but never understanding, because you only catch fleeting glimpses of your surroundings. You have to try to fill in the blanks, and the joy is not in filling them, but in discovering new bits and pieces that may be fitting, or not. Stroszek to me is a very dark film, from the first frame to the last. I can try to place my interpretations on it, but I don't really trust that. I prefer to just be moved by the mysterious emotions the film generates, that it holds some significant truths, but they are maybe impossible to truly grasp. I've seen it several times throughout the years. I enjoy showing it to "film club" audiences. I'm really glad I found this blog. So what do you think of Herzog's "The White Diamond"?

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks for your interesting comments. I agree that almost all of Herzog's films are expressionistic.