You really can’t go wrong with any of the 16 titles included in Herzog: The Collection, the recently released limited edition Blu-ray set. This stunning compendium features several of the incomparable Werner Herzog’s finest fiction and documentary films (including many that fall somewhere between those categories), most available for the first time on Blu-ray. Though the strongest cases could be made for Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, it would be difficult to necessarily pick the “best” film included here, but one movie that has always stood out as being among Herzog’s most unusual is Stroszek, from 1977. Well received upon its release, and now recognized as one of the German filmmaker’s finest films, Stroszek is something of an enigma in Herzog’s career full of enigmatic works.
The picture follows three Berliners as they flee their homeland for the safe haven that is Wisconsin. There is the prostitute Eva, played by Eva Mattes, primarily known for her collaborations with Herzog’s fellow German New Waver, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Effi Briest, and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, among others). Then there is Bruno Stroszek, played by the inscrutable Bruno S., primarily known for, well, being the abused, trouble-making, mentally unstable son of a prostitute. Dubbed by Herzog the “unknown soldier of German cinema,” Bruno had worked with the director on The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser three years prior, also in the title role. Lastly, there is Scheitz, played by Clemens Scheitz, another amateur and rather odd fellow with a total of six credits to his name, four of them with Herzog.
Stroszek begins as Bruno is released from prison (the real Bruno was also in frequent trouble with the law). Toting some luggage, his accordion, and a bugle, the music-loving Bruno proclaims he is “entering freedom,” but his delight at this is sadly ironic, for no sooner is he out than he begins to see just how harsh, demanding, and restricting the outside world can be. The disheveled and wild-eyed Bruno is warned to stay away from alcohol (apparently a key factor in his incarceration), so of course the first thing he does is grab a beer at the bar. There he meets up with Eva, a low-class prostitute under the thumb of an abusive pimp. With pimps, a prostitute, and a pub, this film, in the beginning anyway, looks more like a Fassbinder feature than one by Herzog, but it doesn’t take long for that to change.
Simple minded though he may be, Bruno is a stark contrast to this criminal thug. He is compassionate, gentle, and seems to truly care for Eva. The exact extent of his feelings is difficult to discern, however, for Bruno — the actor and the character — is frequently shown to be utterly bewildered by his surroundings, physically and mentally strained to comprehend others and express himself. It might seem at first perhaps cruel for Herzog to have such a clearly uneasy individual in front of the camera, but quite quickly, the touching humanity conveyed by this nonprofessional is extraordinary.
Bruno joins Scheitz back at his apartment. The old man has been looking over Bruno’s belongings while he was away, and he tells Bruno he will soon be leaving for America where he will join his nephew. He’ll be traveling by boat, he says, because planes are “built the wrong way.” Eva repeatedly tries to escape the clutches of her pimp, but he is relentless and belligerent. Finally, after he trashes their apartment, brutally assaults Eva, and humiliates Bruno, the trio decides to leave once and for all (after Eva “works” to get enough money).
Following a brief sightseeing stopover in New York City, the group purchases a car for $495 and they’re on their way to America’s Dairyland. Already Bruno struggles to come to terms with this strange new land: “What kind of a country would confiscate Bruno’s mynah bird?” he wonders aloud. Once in Railroad Flats, Wisconsin (actually Plainfield), Scheitz’s nephew greets the group with a “welcome” sign, colorful streamers, his Indian coworker waves an American flag, and, for some reason, they give the visitors Hawaiian leis. On a tour around town, the nephew also informs them that there have been not four, but possibly five murders in the area; he regularly checks for evidence with his metal detector. Bruno gets a job working with the nephew in a garage while Eva begins waitressing at a truck stop. Bruno dons a cowboy hat, they get a mobile home, and Scheitz studies animal magnetism. Joy and hope surface for the first time in the film, and after the hardships of Berlin, the three can begin anew. “Now we’ve made it,” declares Scheitz.
But such optimism doesn’t last. Before long, the barren wintery landscape reflects the breakdown of Bruno’s American dream. “Everyone can make money in America,” argues Eva, but Bruno soon becomes disenchanted and tension grows between him and Eva. The bills add up, the language barrier makes potential solutions next to impossible, and the bank eventually repossesses their home. Eva tries to earn more money (guess how), but it’s not enough. She leaves with some hillbilly truckers while Scheitz and Bruno embark on a drastically ill-conceived retaliatory endeavor that gets the former arrested and sends the latter on his way alone to the film’s stunning conclusion.
From the uncomfortable early scene with a premature baby to the film’s dancing chicken denouement, Stroszek is marked by one strange moment after another. Never quite disturbing, but frequently unsettling, certain sequences have a naturally occurring oddness. Perhaps because Werner Herzog was a stranger to this part of America (or perhaps simply because he is Werner Herzog), he manages to hone in on some distinctly regional characteristics that, on the surface and seen in their everyday banality, are relatively innocuous. However, when he trains his objective, observational camera on these features, and places them in the context of this unorthodox movie, they resonate with a remarkable weirdness. With corpses of broken down vehicles scattered in fields, dead deer strapped to the back of cars, tags left on furniture and plastic on mattresses, and an impromptu and surprisingly well-attended auction (the sound of an auctioneer’s rapid-paced calling being one of the strangest damned things I’ve ever seen or heard in real life or in the movies), this is the world of Stroszek.
There are neither exotic locales nor individuals of incredible disposition in this film, so in the Werner Herzog canon Stroszek is something of an anomaly. Due to this normality and the lack of fantastic characters or environmental attributes, it basically stands alone in Herzog’s oeuvre. But this is Werner Herzog, and under this facade of ordinariness he reveals the everyday mysteries and peculiarities that make a rather mundane Wisconsin town in the late 1970s as alien as the Peruvian jungle and as contemporarily incongruous as 18th century Bavaria. And our heroes, this motley trio of pleasant outcasts, emerge to be as fascinating and as emotionally engaging as any of the mesmerizing individuals Herzog has filmed.
It seems redundant to say that Werner Herzog’s movies are unlike anyone else’s, and more often than not, each of his own films are markedly unique from what he did prior or following. But for all of the above reasons and more, Stroszek is truly an exceptional work, with one of cinema’s most bizarre, hilarious, and rather unnerving endings, as is suggested by the film’s final lines of dialogue: “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 and we can’t stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician. We’re standing by…”