After finishing my graduate program last month, I decided to treat myself to a few presents. Ok, quite a few presents. Fine, more like a couple of shopping sprees. One of the more notable items that arrived during this barrage of Amazon deliveries was a collection of Werner Herzog films, aptly titled Herzog: The Collection. Consisting of 16 films spread across 13 discs, this collection contained many films that I had seen before, like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, and even films that I pathetically attempted to review on this blog, such as Nosferatu the Vampyre. Several films however were more obscure, including titles that I had never seen or even heard of. One of these is Herzog’s 1977 road film Stroszek, a title often regarded as one of the director’s best.
Stroszek is brimming with the filmmaker’s iconoclastic style. It also features an intense, disconcerting performance from Bruno Schleinstein, the enigmatic actor who Herzog worked with on two films in the 1970s and who then dropped off the radar. Stroszek has a tenor that is difficult to describe. It’s not a searing drama. It is also not particularly funny, at least not in the whole “I’m laughing so hard I feel lightheaded” sort of way. Stroszek is simply Herzogian: an intriguing, engaging portrayal of weird people and the dreams that shape their lives.
As mentioned, the figure at the heart of Stroszek is Bruno Schleinstein (credited as Bruno S.) who plays, not coincidentally, a man named Bruno S…troszek. Bruno is an alcoholic who, at the beginning of the film, is in the process of being released from Berlin-area prison. Despite emphatic warnings from his prison’s warden to stay off the sauce, Bruno immediately heads to a bar after his release and cracks open a cold one.
At the bar he meets and begins to fall for a young prostitute named Eva (Eva Mattes). This unlikely duo soon finds themselves menaced by Eva’s brutal pimps, who repeatedly abuse and debase them. After Eva suffers a particularly vicious assault, she and Bruno decide to accompany his elderly neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) to America, where he is planning to live with his nephew Clayton in rural Wisconsin. Following a boat trip to New York and a long drive, the trio arrives at the farm and begin to set up a new life. Bruno gets a job at the auto shop owned by Clayton (Clayton Szalpinski), while Eva becomes a waitress at a local greasy spoon. Bruno and Eva also begin co-habitating in a large mobile home, which Clayton allows them to park on his land.
Initially, these three outcasts experience modest happiness, a welcomed reprieve from the harshness and cruelty that dominated their lives back in Germany. Too quickly however they begin falling into their old routines, with Bruno descending back into alcoholism and Eva returning to prostitution. As you might predict, things end about as bleakly as possible, with disaster and uncertainty swallowing up almost everything onscreen.
The primary theme of Stroszek is exploitation, and the various ways that it manifests and imposes itself on individual lives. Herzog brilliantly outlines how exploitation is a ubiquitous fact of the human condition, pervasive not only in obvious arenas like economics, but also in governmental structures, sexual relationships and even artistic mediums such as cinema.
That last point is where Herzog’s film is the most interesting, and is where, historically, it received criticism from select voices. In many ways, Stroszek functions as a pseudo-biography of the life of its lead actor, Bruno S., specifically the early-life details the character shares periodically during the film. By all accounts, the real Bruno Schleinstein suffered greatly over a large portion of his early life, experiencing abuse from his mother and then later from the Nazi government after he was interned at a number of mental institutions. All of these experiences are shared by the fictional character Bruno S. plays in Stroszek, prompting obvious questions about cinema and the subjects it chooses to capture.
Stroszek’s multifaceted tackling of exploitation is more eloquent at certain points than others. Once the story shifts from Berlin to Wisconsin the cause behind Bruno’s and Eva’s feelings of despair are much less clear. It could be argued that the characters are simply let down by the realities of life in America, which obviously fail to measure up to the delusional fantasies they concocted prior to their departure from Berlin.
This heightened conception of what America is or is not is strongly suggested through intentional choices by the filmmakers, which create a portrait of the country dominated by abstraction. For example, the New York the three Berliners visit upon their initial arrival to the country is depopulated and vague, enlivened, only partially, by sporadic snatches of Chet Atkins and Sonny Terry’s score. It is also deeply embedded in the depiction of the Wisconsin countryside, where armed farmers ride tractors past each other to make sure a contested piece of land remains unfarmed.
For me, Stroszek’s thematic richness ticks up again towards the end of the film, specifically when life begins to fully implode on the farm and the storyline shifts to North Carolina. These scenes make full use of Bruno S.’s inimitable presence. The actor interjects them with a cloudy, deeply-addled intensity, evoking the air of someone who knows there is something wrong in the world but is incapable of doing anything about it. It is also in this section where the film’s humor becomes more potent, particularly a hilariously misguided armed robbery that is followed immediately by an impromptu trip to the grocery store.
Despite these humorous vignettes, Stroszek remains a predominately grim affair, one that perceives exploitation as a quintessential part of existence. The film’s transfixing final scene features Bruno stumbling about in a roadside amusement park, which is filled with trained animals (including a dancing chicken) stuffed in displays. This scene critically examines the film’s major themes of exploitation and the American experience. It is filled with evocative imagery too, some of it more on-the-nose than others, like a sign on a chairlift car that Stroszek rides that simply says, “Is This Really Me?”
Other images however feel less blatant, like the dancing chicken, which dances throughout the film’s final scene and is the final thing viewers see before the credits role. Like much of Stroszek, this image feels depressing. It is also suitable for encapsulating the film’s message about how cycles of exploitation are not only everywhere, but they also must be endlessly endured.