First published by Movie Gazette
Director Werner Herzog is renowned for introducing unconventional elements to his films which, far from being merely contrived gimmicks, coax out unexpected truths from his fiction. In Even Dwarves Started Small (1971), an all-dwarf cast underscores the childish behaviour of his adult characters. In Heart of Glass, the entire cast and crew were hypnotised, lending a dreamy abstraction to its events. In films like Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Cobra Verde (1987), he got mad, bad actor Klaus Kinski to play mad, bad protagonists, and created from the tension between himself and the notoriously difficult actor a palpable intensity that is rare in cinema. In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), he cast Bruno S, a non-actor who had been institutionalised for 23 of his first 26 years, to convey Hausen’s asocial otherworldliness – and he was so impressed with Bruno S’s performance that he offered him the lead rôle in his next projected film, Woyzeck (eventually made in 1979). When, however, Herzog reflected that Kinski was better-suited to this part, he wrote Stroszek especially for Bruno S by way of compensation – and as a monument to his unusual life and outsider character.
In state care for most of his life, gentle musical misfit Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S) is released from prison once again, and offers shelter to the abused prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes) in his apartment in the Turkish district of Berlin. Both fall victim to further harassment from Eva’s violent pimps, so when Bruno’s batty elderly neighbour Mr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) is set to retire to the USA, Eva persuades a reluctant Bruno that they should join the old man and pursue the American dream together. For a time the unlikely trio creates in their mobile home an island of blissful warmth against the harsh winter of Railroad Flats, Wisconsin – but soon financial difficulties, linguistic alienation and madness trigger a Pavlovian response, causing all three to revert to their former behavioural patterns as surely as performing animals.
Although the basic plot of Stroszek is of Herzog’s invention, much of its power comes from a high degree of vérité. All the characters share their names with the actors who play them. Bruno S really was a street musician, really did refer to himself in the third person, and many of his more unhinged speeches in the film are improvised from his own autobiography. Herzog had been warned that actor Clemens Scheitz was somewhat crazed, and many of his character’s more bizarre theories on mesmerism and animal magnetism were in fact the actor’s own. Wilhelm von Homburg, who plays a strongarm pimp, was an ex-wrestler who really had acted as muscle for pimps. The Berlin Turks, and the American farmers, hunters, truckers, police and auctioneers, were all the genuine article recruited by Herzog to participate in the film. So when Eva Mattes was singled out at Cannes for an award for her performance, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that this was owing in part to the fact that she was the only prominent player in the film who was clearly acting – everyone else was just being themselves.
The result is a grim yet humane tale of down-trodden characters trapped in cycles of exclusion and fragility that they cannot escape, no matter what their location. Its most surreal moments are also its most real, and its off-the-wall (but perfectly pitched) ending, regarded by Herzog as the best sequence he ever shot, will continue to haunt the viewer for a long, long time.