Stroszek (1977)

Stroszek 1"We've got a truck on fire...can't find the switch to turn the ski lift off...and can't stop the dancing chicken...Send an electrician."

In one of the most strangest and fascinating art films ever made, Werner Herzog's Stroszek tells the simple story of a mentally disabled ex-con, a tiny quirky best friend and a girlfriend who is a prostitute, who all three decide to leave Germany and begin a new life in a trailer house in Wisconsin; Which Herzog purposely shot in the hometown of serial killer Ed Gein. Not only would Herzog decide to cast the roles of the townspeople with the real town locals, but he would also cast a non-actor named Bruno Scheinstein as the lead character. Bruno's lifestory is as strange and sad as the story itself, as he was born the son of a prostitute and incarcerated in a mental institution from most of his early life. The performance by Bruno S is so haunting and painful because what is presented on the screen is the real man, who Herzog says on the DVD commentary was beaten so bad as a child, which is why society looked at him as mentally ill. The screenplay for Stroszek was written quickly in four days as Herzog already had the location of Plainfield, Wisconsin in mind. There, Herzog had planned to meet documentary filmmaker Errol Morris to dig up serial killer Ed Gein's mother's grave, but Morris never showed. Fortunately for Herzog his car broke down which led him to meet the mechanic whose character and shop later become major parts in the story.

There are several beautiful and humanistic moments in the film, whether its the extraordinary shot of the Fleet-wood home being towed off the land leaving Bruno all alone to helplessly stare at the empty cold Wisconsin landscape, the infamous 'dancing chicken' ending, which shows a montage of a chicken dancing, a chicken playing a piano and a rabbit riding a toy fire truck. And my absolute favorite scene in the film which occurs earlier in Berlin, when a doctor and friend takes Bruno into a ward where premature babies are being tended, and the sad and wondrous expression on Bruno's face when the doctor presents to him the grip reflexes of a small infant as the baby clings to the doctor's fingers is beautiful and quite poignant. It is impossible for an audience to anticipate the unfoldings of Stroszek's bizarre plot, and yet we cannot look away as we find ourselves obsorbed into the sad and fasinating world of its oddball character's, who are in search simply for the American dream.

 

PLOT/NOTES

Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) is a Berlin street performer who was incarcerated for alcohol related issues. Finally it his day of being released from prison as the prison guard hands him his items that they currently held for him: "One jacket, one pair of pants, a sweater, a shirt...a pair of socks, one pair of high shoes, one accordion Scandalli brand, five packs of  cigarettes, one handkerchief, one passport, one key chain, one bugle horn...must be from a rail gang."

Bruno takes the bugle horn and blows as he says, "Bruno is now entering freedom." Bruno's cellmates which Bruno well as one cellmate gives him the smallest made paper ship in the world, and another amuses him with humor by lighting a match and passing gas, igniting a flame. Before leaving, the warden warns Bruno to stop drinking and to not go to any bars, and Bruno holds out his hand and says, "My great Hungarian word of honor."

Now a free man, Bruno leaves the prison and immediately makes his way to the nearest familiar bar and orders a beer. A prostitute named Eva who is down on her luck is being physically abused by her boyfriend and so Bruno reassures her that everything will be alright. "Where've you been Bruno?" she asks and Bruno tells her he was on vacation. Bruno suggests he has a place that his landlord and tiny friend Clemens Scheitz kept for him and she can sleep there.

They head to Bruno's apartment as Bruno plays some music on his black piano calling it his 'black friend'. Bruno wonders what will happen to all his beloved instruments when he dies someday saying, "Where are these things and these instruments going to end up? What's going to become of them?"

Clemens arrives to drop off Bruno's talking parrot Beo that he took in while Bruno was locked up. Eva agrees to live with Bruno, but first she needs to head back to her place and grab her things. Bruno celebrates Eva rooming with him by playing his glockenspiel: "Ladies and gentlemen, Bruno will now play his glockenspiel. Because Bruno now has Eva living with him." Unfortunately Bruno heads back to his apartment to find Eva's abusive boyfriend and one of his goon's waiting for him and so he decides to turn and leave so there isn't a violent confrontation.

Eva doesn't return to Bruno's place later that evening and Bruno is sure that she has returned to her abusive boyfriend as Clemens and him wait for her hopeful return. The next morning Bruno arrives at the bar to find his worries confirmed as he sees Eva back with her abusive boyfriend. He overhears Eva's boyfriend yell to her, "Cunt! I'm going to bury that runt up as deep as he'll go."

Eva's boyfriend starts to harass and threaten Bruno, and one day Eva forcefully arrives to Bruno's apartment with her boyfriend and one of his goons forcing their way in and trashing his place and pulling apart his accordion. They than humiliate Bruno by making him kneel on his grand piano with bells balanced on his back. After they leave Bruno comforts a beaten Eva by laying her down and making her tea and cookies. That next morning Eva runs away again returning to her boyfriend and the harassment on Bruno continues.

Out of options Bruno decides to talk to his doctor friend. The doctor listens sympathetically to Bruno and takes Bruno into a premature ward where premature babies are being held. He shows Bruno how strong a babies grip and reflect is, as one clings on the doctors fingers. The doctor shows Bruno how a baby so young and futile can at the same time be so dedicated in holding onto life and survival. When the baby cries the doctor tenderly cradles it, kisses its ear and the baby falls asleep.

When Bruno returns home Eva is there with fresh new fresh bruises and so Bruno asks if she would like him to call the police. She says, "No. We'll go away from here, Bruno. I'll stay by you. I won't run away no more." Clemens announces that his nephew Clayton in Railroad Flats, Wisconsin has invited him to move there, and the three decide to all leave Germany and start new lives together. To get the money to leave Eva raises it through prostitution to several Turkish workers at a construction site.

After making enough money for the three of them, Bruno says, "And it's about time. Berlin's been getting on my nerves." Clemens tells Eva and Bruno that he's heard good news from his nephew in that he can get Bruno a job in his shop working as an auto mechanic, and Eva can get a job as a waitress in a restaurant. Clemens shows them photos of his nephew and of his Native American assistant who can also help them prefabricate a house for the three of them.

When the three arrive in the United States they decide to sight-see the city of New York and later with a used car drive to the cold winter-bound, barren of 'Railroad Flats'. When arriving to Clayton's prairie he gives the three foreigners a tour of the town of Railroad Flats and informs them that with some investigation he thinks they're not only four murderers but five murderers currently residing in the town; As a man drove his tractor out into the fields and disappeared.

Bruno immediately begins to work daily as a mechanic with Clayton and his Native American helper, as there is a slightly disgusting scene in which Clayton pulls out the root of one of his teeth by using a wrench. In the meantime Eva is working as a waitress at the local truck stop while Clemens spends his free time pursuing his interest in animal magnetism within the area. The three eventually purchase a magnificent new 40-foot 1973 Fleet-wood mobile home trailer which is lifted on Clayton's land as Clemens says to Bruno, "Well, we've made it Bruno."

Because of the story of the missing farmer and his enormous tractor, Clayton believes they might be found at the bottom of one of the many local lakes, as he uses his metal detector to search for him on a day when the ice is thick enough. Unfortunately shortly after the bills begin to mount Bruno looks at their newly bought motor home and television and says to Eva, "How are we going to pay this? The TV set, the house, and then those contracts...I thought America would be different, and we could get rich quick."

The three get even farther behind in their payments and eventually a friendly banker drops by to discuss financial woes. The man has a obvious fake smile plastered across his face as he tries his best to politely use particular words that suggest that he might have to reposses their things. Bruno doesn't seem to understand English and so him and the Banker can't seem to get anywhere but Eva understands English and solves the situation, if for a short time by pulling out a wad of money and giving it to the banker.

Over time Bruno's drinking increases as he one evening confronts Eva on several issues by going on a rant on how they haven't reached the goal of success in the United States that he originally thought they would of. He describes how back back home in Germany, when society would hurt you they would hurt you psychically, unlike in the United States where they will hurt you spiritually: "Home they hurt you openly. Today they do it differently. They don't go like this, or like this...They do it ever so politely, and with a smile. It's much worse. You can smell it in the air, and you can see it, too...Who knows what fate will bring?"

Bruno also knows that Eva fell back into prostitution to supplement their wages and also has recently been distancing herself from Bruno by sleeping in separate rooms; She explains she does it because she needs her privacy. Bruno presents to Eva a sort of twisted sculpture and says to her in the third person, "this is a schematic model of how it looks inside Bruno. They're closing all the doors on him."

Even with Eva's prostitution wages, the three aren't able to meet the payments as Eva starts to spend more time prostituting herself with a couple of truck drivers that she met waitressing. Bruno one afternoon goes to see Eva on her lunch break, but when Eva isn't found at the restaurant Bruno makes his way into the parking lot and catches her in the act of sex inside the back of a truck. Eva is tired of Bruno's drunken ramblings and eventually deserts him by leaving with a couple of truck drivers bound for Vancouver.

Upset of Eva's departure Bruno gets highly intoxicated at his mobile home, which unfortunately is again visited by the overly friendly banker. In a awkward scene of language barriers between the banker and a drunken Bruno, the Banker informs Bruno that the bank is forced to repossess their mobile home and politely asks Bruno to sign off on the repossession.

Eventually the home and all their possessions are auctioned off the sight. There is an extraordinary shot of the Fleet-wood home being towed off the land, leaving Bruno to helplessly stare at at the empty Wisconsin landscape, as the American dream he once dreamed of is lost.

Clemens is convinced that the Americans are all conspiring against him as he yells in German at the bankers who sold their home, "You can't do this to us, gentlemen, I won't allow it. This is a conspiracy. I shall talk to my Secret Service friends." The American bankers don't understand what the foreigner is saying and drive off. "We're going to put a stop to this vile conspiracy," yells Clemens as he takes a rifle and him and Bruno drive up to the bank to rob it.

Stroszek 2Unfortunately for them the bank is closed and so they decide to rob the barber shop next door and make way with 32 dollars and immediately head across the street to the 7-11 to go shopping for groceries. The police arrive and arrest Clemens for armed robbery without noticing Bruno. They drag Clemens away as he says in German,"So you're in this too. May I ask who sent you?"

Holding a large frozen turkey from the store and the shotgun, Bruno returns to the garage where he works, loads the tow truck with beer, and drives along a highway into the mountains.

Upon entering a small town, the truck breaks down, and so Bruno pulls over to a restaurant, where he tells his tragic story to a German-speaking businessman. He then starts the truck, leaves it circling in the parking lot with a fire taking hold in the engine compartment and goes into a tourist trap across the street, where he starts a ski-lift and rides it with his frozen turkey. After Bruno disappears from view a single gun-shot rings out.

The police arrive at the scene to find the truck is now fully ablaze. One of the officers calls the fire department stating, "We've got a truck on fire, can't find the switch to turn the ski lift off, and can't stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician." The film ends with a classic sequence showing a chicken dancing, a chicken playing a piano and a rabbit riding a toy fire truck, in coin operated attractions that Bruno activated on his way to the ski-lift.

 

NEW GERMAN CINEMA

The legendary director Werner Herzog was one of the major director's who contributed in the New German Cinema movement which lasted throughout the late 1960's to the 1980's. This movement was a sudden emergence of new generation German director's who produced a number of small low budget avantgarde films that caught the attention of art house audiences and enabled these directors into better financed productions which were even backed by the US studios. Such directors involved in the New German Cinema movement besides Werner Herzog were Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, VolkerSchlondorff, and Wim Wenders; as these young set of filmmakers sparked a renaissance in German cinema and their success encouraged other German filmmakers to make such quality stories. The New German Cinema was influenced by other earlier film movements like the French New Wave, British Kitchen Sink realism, and Italian Neorealism with references to the well-established genres of The Hollywood cinema. These films mostly contained low budget stories that represented contemporary German life as several of these filmmakers were specifically concerned with asking questions about national identity, German history, and the gritty and bleak experiences of modern struggles.

As a reaction to the artistic and economic stagnation of German cinema, these group of young German film-makers issued the Oberhausen Manifesto on 28 February 1962, which was a group that provocatively and confidently declared that "The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema". The Oberhausen Manifesto was a rejection of the existing German film industry and their determination to build a new industry founded on artistic excellence rather than commercial dictates; most famously with Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul and Wim Wender's Wings of Desire.

 

ANALYZE

Like legendary director Stanley Kubrick, Werner Herzog has been known to be one of the most visionary and creative directors who took big artistic risks not only with his film projects he envisioned but of the unusual cast of character's he hired for his films. Bruno Schleinstein was born in an abusive childhood and spent 23 years of his life in a mental institution.

He was a self-taught musician, who over the years developed considerable skill on the piano, and accordion and would play in back gardens performing 18th and 19th century style ballads at the weekends, while sustaining himself financially working as a forklift driver at a car plant. Bruno was spotted by director Werner Herzog in the documentary Bruno der Schwarze – Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn and Herzog promptly casted Bruno as his lead actor in his masterpiece The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a historical true story about a young man barely able to speak and walk who mysteriously appeared in town square early one morning during the year 1828 in Nuremberg. Because Bruno didn't want to become a known actor and celebrity Herzog agreed to keep Bruno's last name confidential which is why he is credited in the film under the name of Bruno S.

Even though Bruno had no previous acting experience and the historical figure he was portraying was only in his teens, Herzog knew that Bruno was perfect for the role of Kaspar and again decided to use him in Stroszek in 1977, where this time Bruno was able to show off his musical skills on the piano and accordion.

Herzog is one of the few director's whose 'making of' a film becomes more legendary than the film itself. Besides Bruno S, German actor Klaus Kinski was another Herzog regular among his cast of actor's throughout his films. And like the fascinating stories that Bruno S. developed with Herzog in his character pieces Stroszek and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; Kinski was another fascination all together.

Herzog had a love and hate relationship with Kinski and yet the both of them seemed to make some of Germany's greatest films together. Herzog casted Kinski to play Dracula in a remake of F.W. Murnau 1922 silent expressionistic classic Nosferatu which was a personal favorite of Herzog's; the director even used the same locations as Murnau originally had.

Herzog then created one of his riskiest and largely scaled epics titled Fitzcarraldo which also starred Kinski. It was a risky and complicated project for Herzog, as he shot the film in the rain forest and also involved an impossible task of men physically moving a steamship from one river to another by dragging it across land. Of course Herzog literally dragged a real ship across land to make the film, despite urgent warnings by engineers that the cables would snap and slice everyone in half.

Then finally there is Herzog's masterpiece Aguirre: The Wrath of God which is not only considered one of the greatest films in the world, but also one of the major contributions to the New German Movement. This film stars Klaus Kinski as a ruthless and insane leader named Aguirre during the 16th century leading a Spanish expedition in search of the golds of El Dorado. Aguirre is a masterpiece that explores the dark depths of the human soul and exposes the themes of greed and madness; and was also an inspiration for Frances Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

When watching Stroszek it's hard to pin point what it is and exactly how to describe it. I wouldn't consider it a comedy, even though several sequences in the story are very comedic and feel similar to the oddball comedies of the Coen Brothers. Stroszek is more a peculiar drama and we get the sense that there is much more to the story and of its character's that Herzog is letting on. There are several beautiful and humanistic moments in the film, whether its the extraordinary shot of the Fleet-wood home being towed off the land leaving Bruno all alone to helplessly stare at the empty cold Wisconsin landscape.

The infamous 'dancing chicken' ending, which shows a montage of a chicken dancing, a chicken playing a piano and a rabbit riding a toy fire truck; and my absolute favorite scene in the film which occurs earlier in Berlin, when a doctor and friend takes Bruno into a ward where premature babies are being tended. The sad and wondrous expression on Bruno's face when the doctor presents to him the grip reflexes of a small infant as the baby clings to the doctor's fingers is beautiful and quite poignant. This one shot on Bruno sums up all that needs to be said about his curious character, showing that he has the simple mind of a infant, and like the baby also needs to be tended and taken care of.

Unfortunately most American movies have actors who don't embody real people and more or less look like people who were hired to be in the movies. Most of them are very attractive and presentable, and that's because most audiences have a particular expectation on how an actor/actress should look and be presented. Most of the character's that are hired by Werner Herzog usually either look too strange or are for too unattractive for a mainstream commercial film. And yet commercial studios don't seem to realize that these expectations they have are a form of restraint that freelance artists like Herzog love to welcome with open arms.

Along with people like Klaus Kinski, Herzog proudly hires non actors into his films, along with the missing teeth, backwoods speech patterns, and imperfect skin; and when presented on camera, are simply playing themselves. Herzog stated in the DVD commentary of Stroszek that Bruno S. would sometimes scream for about an hour or two, just to get in the mood for a scene. With Bruno S, what you see is what you get, as he holds nothing back along with all the other non-actors within the film, which presents a kind of honest sincerity that no Hollywood film could accomplish even with its best actors.

Stroszek 3When released Stroszek was in most part received highly by German and American critics, and yet some people have called the film a attack on American society. When watching the film again I didn't see that, and this is coming from someone who was raised in Wisconsin. Yes they're a few subtle references to Wisconsin serial killers (As Clayton explains, not four murderers but five murderers who are currently residing in the town), but in retrospect the Germans seem to come off looking worse than the Americans; Especially Eva's violent pimp and his gang of henchmen. The Americans in the film are always presented as friendly, naive and simpleminded folk, even the bank official who tries his best to tell the foreigners that the bank has to repossess their home; presenting a wide smile and using the nicest words possible. The film's tragedy occurs because these three chracter's cannot learn to live and work with one another, and it would have ended tragically for them whether they moved to the United States or stayed in Germany. In the climax of most movies, its hopeless character's who are shunned from society usually resort to crime. And even though the character's in Stroszek eventually do just that, it doesn't end in the way most people might expect. The classic 'dancing chicken' in the last sequence of the film has within time become a staple of art cinema. Herzog has stated on the DVD commentary that several of his crew members hated the 'dancing chicken' sequence so much in fact that they refused to participate and shoot it. Herzog knew that the sequence had to be included and took it upon himself to shoot the sequence alone. Herzog stated that the chicken sequence is a great metaphor within the large context of the story, and over time many film buffs have interpreted their own theories to the scene. My interpretation of the scene is that the chicken dancing, the chicken playing a piano and the rabbit riding a toy fire truck, all symbolize the absurdity of human existence. We all represent the dancing chicken in some form or another and pointlessly go through circles again and again, like the tow truck left running in the street. We purely existence only to conform to the rules of society and we will dance until the money runs out. The character of Bruno is brighter than society believes because he chooses not to be a slave to societies laws, realizing that the only way to be free of such authoritarian constraints is to no longer live at all.

Shares 0
Werner Herzog Featured Films
Copyright © 2018 — Classic Art Films — All Rights Reserved