Director: Werner Herzog
9th Annual Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Whenever you go into a film by Werner Herzog, expect the unexpected. The idiosyncratic director with a taste for the grotesque never does anything by half, and frequently inflicts the same fate on his characters. His feature Stroszek comes close to defining the word “offbeat” while still clinging to a fairly linear plot and recognizable characters. In fact, his characters are played by nonactors and, indeed, many play themselves in a film that spans from Berlin to serial killer Ed Gein’s hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin (called Railroad Flats in the movie because of a feud Herzog had with documentarian Errol Morris about—oh never mind, it’s just too complicated).
The film opens on the day that Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) is released from jail. The nature of his crime is not revealed, but the warden warns him away from taverns. My guess would be that he was drunk and disorderly and playing music in public for money without a license. I guess this because when the articles he had when he was taken into custody are returned to him, they included an accordion. Bruno immediately heads into the nearest pub and orders a beer, which he downs in one swill.
In the pub, he meets up with his old friend Eva (Eva Mattes) and the pair of loathsome pimps (Wilhelm von Homburg and Burkhard Driest) she works for. After being rejected by the pair, Eva goes home with Bruno to the apartment his friend Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) has been keeping for him. Scheitz, a little old man in a black topcoat and beret; Bruno; and Eva form an odd family for a short time. Soon, the pimps come into the apartment and trash the place; later, Eva comes home beaten and bruised. Scheitz has a relative living in Wisconsin who will hire Bruno and get Eva a job in a truck stop. The trio review a map to find out where Wisconsin is, fantasize about mobile homes, pack up, and head for America.
At first, things go pretty much as planned. Eva is shown working like a well-oiled machine at the diner. Bruno goes to work for Scheitz’s relative, a mechanic (Clayton Szalpinski,) and the threesome get a brand-new mobile home to live in. All seems miraculous in America, that is, until the three find out they actually have to pay back the loan they got to buy their dream trailer. Inevitably, Eva starts turning tricks again, eventually running off with a trucker to Vancouver. Bruno and Scheitz decide to rob the bank to which they owe money, but go when the bank is closed. Instead, they stick their shotgun in a barber’s face and steal $30 from his register. Then they cross the street to buy groceries. Scheitz is apprehended by the police. Bruno, all alone, does what anyone would do—he steals a tow truck from the mechanic shop and drives off to find Eva, shotgun and a frozen turkey from the grocery store in tow.
It’s tempting to think of this movie as a lampoon of the American dream, but listening to Herzog’s explanation of how the film came about shows it to be an excuse for Herzog to create a dark comedy populated with an odd assortment of characters he met by chance in Berlin and Wisconsin. Bruno S. was a tragic human being, raised by a prostitute and beaten into temporary deafness. He also played the lead in Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser: Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, which tells the true story of Hauser, who was locked in a cellar for most of his life and then set into the world. Bruno S. picks up where he left off from that film as a man who doesn’t quite fit into society and carries a childish optimism and adult melancholy with him wherever he goes. Wilhelm von Homburg was a pro wrestler and boxer who had served time in prison; Herzog reported “I liked him very much.” The mechanic actually fixed Herzog’s car some time before. When Herzog came back to shoot Stroszek, he asked for the mechanic’s Native American assistant to be in the film. Szalpinski didn’t even remember the guy, then realized he had hired and fired him the same day. Of course, Herzog tracked him down, and the man, Ely Rodriguez, is in the film.
Stroszek ends with a Native American police officer somewhere in the vicinity of Vancouver phoning in as Herzogian a line as any: “We have a 10-80 out here, a truck on fire, we have a man on the lift. We are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off, can’t stop the dancing chickens. Send an electrician, we’re standing by.” Naturally. l