Friday, March 26, 2010

Herzog Hurts So Good

The first lines about Werner Herzog's movie Stroszek on Wikipedia are these:
"Stroszek is a 1977 film by German director Werner Herzog. It was written in four days specifically for
Bruno S. and was shot in Berlin, two towns in Wisconsin, and in North Carolina. Most of the lead roles are played by non-actors."

This is naturalist absurdity. Nothing in this film is adulterated by special effects. Half of the dialogue is improvised. The female lead exits the film 3/4 of the way through, never to return. We see her with makeup, without, beat up, dressed, and undressed. The lead character, played by Bruno S., is, actually just Bruno S. And who is Bruno S.? A half-mad former delinquent son-of-a-prostitute who plays an accordion in the street.

One of the benefits of life in LA: I got to hear Herzog himself introduce and then discuss the film at the Egyptian Theater. And this in and of itself was absurd--the theater is on Hollywood Blvd, in the heart of the High-Gloss Celluloid tourist trap, but, was stuffed with bespectacled hipsters who clearly belong down Sunset at the WGA, or the DGA, or downtown at USC film school. I wondered how many of them deigned to slum it at the Pig and Whistle, just for shits and giggles, after the Herzog event. He's clearly a god, to many of them, since the theater was packed nearly to capacity on a Sunday night and to my right, a man with a closely shaved head and light cashmere sweater was moved to tears when Herzog took the stage. Before Herzog even said anything.

The film itself, to hear Herzog tell it, is a glorious piece of luck. It's a movie he loves, built almost completely upon happenstance. He wanted to cast Bruno in a different film, changed his mind, felt guilty, and wrote Stroszek in 4 days to appease Bruno, an emotional, eccentric, factory-worker-cum-actor. One of the most brilliant moments of the film, in which Bruno sits at a woodgrain table in a soon-to-be-reclaimed-by-the-bank mobile home with his sort-of girlfriend, a prostitute named Eva (also actually named Eva), was entirely improvised. Bruno delivers a polemic against the American method of quietly, subtly, stealing your soul. At least under the Nazis, he argues, it was brutality out in the open. Here, it's hidden. You are oppressed and you don't know where from, or by whom, exactly. Everybody smiles at you.

I said, "whoah," out loud. I was sitting alone, with Herzog disciples on either side. The one to my left nodded and smiled knowingly. Los Angeles people don't like to verbalize their awe, but he at least acknowledged mine.

The movie ends in a tourist trap, with a chicken, a duck, and a bunny all performing stunts: driving a fire engine, dancing to a juke box. This is the epitome of car-crash attraction. You cannot look away from the dancing chicken. You cannot stand the dancing chicken. You are an American who cannot look away from your culture. Yet you cannot stand your culture. This paradox seems insurmountable at the end of Stroszek.

Herzog told a series of endearing stories after the film. Origin stories, we call them. Where an idea came from. How a moment in the film got captured. Who that mute mechanic was, and how difficult it was to find him months later. I wanted to hear it all, in the vain hope that the movie would start to "make sense."

But it doesn't. And it doesn't for a few reasons. The first, and most important reason, is Bruno lives in three cultural arenas that do not make sense. Prison, at the beginning of the film. 1970s Berlin, where the hustlers and pimps control the streets of his neighborhood, in the middle. And The American Midwest, at the end. Increasingly, Bruno is isolated, as his translator leaves him, his sense of order leaves him, and his last partner in crime is arrested.

In the end, he has a shotgun, a frozen turkey, and a chair lift that runs endlessly up and down a forested hill. On the back of his lift is a sign reading: "Is this really me?"

Is this culture really mine? How could it not be, if I am in it? How could it be, if I am not of it? At some point we all look around and realize all we've really got is a frozen turkey and a shotgun, don't we? This is why we build community. Why we artists create deliberate absurdity in the midst of all that claims (by its hegemony) to not be absurd. At least I think so.

But I'm wearing broken glasses in the desert, drinking cold coffee. My throat hurts and the kitchen is gurgling. My authority is seriously in question.


  1. "But I'm wearing broken glasses in the desert, drinking cold coffee. My throat hurts and the kitchen is gurgling. My authority is seriously in question."


  2. Hey! Great article. I don't know if I create absurdity. But I try to point it out. And change it if possible.