With an ending which will send both mainstream movie watchers and film critics into fits for different reasons, Werner Herzog’s “Stroszek” (1977) is not the easiest movie to love. My sole contact with Herzog’s work being the epic “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) left me unprepared for what played out in this film. The mix of untrained actors and a pacing to match the works of Jim Jarmusch requires an adjustment which many will not be able to make. I found myself on IMDB looking at a synopsis to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
On a plot level, it is simplistic. Three German misfits from Berlin wind up going to Wisconsin to find their fortunes but instead find despair and emptiness. The characters in “Stoszek” are often silent because they are unwilling or unable to express their interior emotions and thoughts. Where American movies ladle on the melodrama, this film goes for understatement. In its final third, we are given release in the form of a darkly ironic turn which us and the titular character never recover from.
The character of Bruno Stroszek is not a character illuminated from within but from without. Our understanding of him originates as much from what is invisible as what is apparent. Why was he in jail for two and half years? His alcoholism is present but never extreme. His dysfunctional relationship with the prostitute Eva is frustratingly vague: are they lovers? His friendship with Schietz, though sincere, seems to stem as much from proximity as it does mutual isolation. Though he is a busker performing on the street, we never see him make any money at it. Does he really understand what is going on around him or in his own troubled mind? Despite this query, there is no question of his soulfulness. He takes in his prostitute friend Eva without question when she finds herself on the outs with her pimp. When his elderly neighbor Scheitz offers an escape from their dreary Berlin life, Stroszek goes along with the idea without much resistance. His sense of loyality and need for love are apparent not by what he says but by what he actually does. What feels like the greatest injustice is that these qualities do not save him. Be it Berlin or Wisconsin, the world remains closed to Stroszek.
The film itself however is the contrast to the character himself. The world though unadorned and naturalistic is displayed in the cinematography to great effect. The textures and tones of Berlin and Railroad Flats (Plainsfield,WI under an assumed name) come through. The music, though spare in amount, also makes an impression. In Berlin, we get fragments of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and German folk music which deepen the character’s sense of place. In the environs of Railroad Flats we get Chet Atkins and some Hillbilly(?) blues which heightens the sense of disconnect that Stroszek has to America. (For some reason the mixture of music here makes me think of Tom Waits, though it sounds nothing like him. Go figure.)
It would be easy to say this film is saying something about America. And yes it does point up the differences between the two central locations, it is not at the expense of the interpersonal (connects and) disconnects present here. In searching for meaning in this deliberately paced and constructed film, it is easy to get lost in the texts and subtexts of the film. (The director commentary on the dvd really enhanced my understanding of the film.) The days since I’ve seen it, I have weighed the value of so many details which seemed so inconsequential at the time. The film invites those who spend the time to a much richer experience than is obviously apparent. My only regret about Stroszek is I didn’t watch it a third time. Who knows? Maybe I would’ve loved it.