Stroszek (1977)

Directed by Werner Herzog

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Stroszek is both heartwarming and scathing, a film whose innocence wears off over time and reveals a much darker underbelly.  It’s the story of a simple man, Bruno Stroszek, fresh out of prison and eager to start his life anew.  He is without any real prospects (career, romantic or otherwise) and deals with regular abuse at the hands of essentially schoolyard bullies, and yet he doesn’t seem capable of pessimism.

When his elderly neighbor, Scheitz, brings up a plan to join his nephew out in Wisconsin,   Bruno and his friend Eva, a prostitute, decide to join him.   Together they make an unlikely trio.

It’s in America that they reason they will have the opportunity to make it rich as long as they work hard, and early on there is nothing to stand in the way of their unbridled optimism.  Bruno is given work as a mechanic, Eva works as a waitress, and the old man enjoys his time tinkering with odd scientific experiments.

But soon things turn sour, in ways predictable not only because of how we know narrative films work, but also because of a variety of harmless observations about America that prove ominous.  In one early scene the old man’s nephew casually points out that there have been five murders in town, not four, and in his spare time he goes searching for the suspected fifth victim with a metal detector.  Another time the old man’s nephew warns. Bruno to stay away from a couple farmers across the street who plow their adjacent land with rifles, ready to use it on the other should he get too close to his own plot of land.

Soon enough Bruno loses Eva (if he ever had her in the first place) to boredom and other men.  She starts turning tricks again to make more money to help afford the cost of the mobile home they’ve begun leasing, but she keeps doing it long after they’ve lost the home (to a banker who looks like he might have only recently come of drinking age).

After Bruno loses Eva and then the home he becomes something of a ghost.  When the home is towed away, Bruno stands still looking at its vacated space, turned to an ugly winter mush, and he and the camera remain there for enough time to let the silence settle in.

He and the old man, who accuses everyone from the banker and the cops to the barber of orchestrating a grand conspiracy, then carry out the most endearing armed robbery I’ve ever seen.

They mean to rob the bank, but when it’s closed they go next door and steal the thirty or so dollars that the barber has in his register.  Then they walk right past their car to the market across the street, grabbing bags of chips like kids given an extra plump allowance by their parents.  A few minutes later the police arrest the old man while Bruno gets away with a frozen turkey.

His arc comes to an expected, bitter end not long after.  He is at once desperate and at peace, having lost everything he once had.  The film ends with an extended shot of a dancing chicken, trained to ‘dance’ for food until the 25 cents deposited into the machine runs out.  It’s humorous and depressing, no matter how you read it.  It’s a caged animal trained to, I suppose, humiliate itself for money.  Then the money runs out, the dancing stops, and the chicken waits imprisoned until more money comes its way.

The Wisconsin portion of this film was shot in the hometown of Ed Gein, the serial killer who inspired Psycho.  The cast is populated in most cases by non actors and in some cases with people playing variations of themselves.  Because of that this feels a lot like a documentary, like the early films of Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida).  Morris and Herzog were friends and once made a pact to dig up the grave of Ed Gein’s mother.

It’s plenty observational, and the story, because of how deliberate it feels, surprises you in the end with how much ground has been covered.  Bruno never feels like he’s up to all that much, and yet he goes on a strange, disheartening odyssey across the world.  Despite all of this story movement, the film can be boiled down to a couple heavy conversations.

One of them is between Bruno and a doctor, though Bruno never speaks.  The doctor tries to explain the burden of the human condition and cites as an example the strong grip of a premature baby wailing in pain.  Bruno, it’s not hard to see, is little more than that pained premature baby, only he struggles to express that degree of emotion.

In another moment Bruno does try to convey the pain he feels, this time to Eva.  He shows her a twisted, contorted doll and says this is how he feels.  The message doesn’t much register with her, and in the end he feels like he’s falling down a large pit, struggling to find a grip.

The film is so tragic, I think, because Bruno’s failure feels inevitable though never personal.  There is no one out to get him, and in fact many of the Americans take rather Kindly to Bruno, Eva and Scheitz.  They are kind and curious, but they are helpless to pull Bruno and company from the jaws of the machine.

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