Saturday, June 19, 2010
I'm not entirely sure how it happened, but somehow, Werner Herzog's movie Stroszek got a reputation for being depressing. Perhaps this stems from the fact that Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself after watching the movie. But, it should be pretty clear that he was planning on committing suicide long in advance and just wanted to make sure the last movie he saw was awesome.
Granted the plot, concerning an impoverished German musician who emigrates to America in search of the American dream, has it all taken away and commits suicide, might be considered a bit depressing. But the depressing subject matter is handled with with such gallows humor that you can't help but enjoy it. Sort of like this upbeat accordion ditty the title character sings near the beginning.
That is Bruno S., playing the character of Bruno Stroszek. Director Werner Herzog is known for his naturalism, to the point where he had the cast of Fitzcarraldo haul an actual steamboat over a mountain on a primitive system of pulleys, in order to simulate the feel of hauling a steamboat over a mountain on a primitive system of pulleys. In Stroszek, to properly convey the character of a mentally ill alcoholic German street musician named Bruno S, he actually cast a mentally ill alcoholic German Street musician named Bruno S. The "S" in the real-life Bruno S. stood for Schleinstein, rather than Stroszek, but you can't win them all.
The other big thing Werner Herzog is known for, is making movies about big dreamers who daringly try to take on nature and ultimately fail: see Aguirre trying to find El Dorado in Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo trying to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle in Fitzcarraldo, or Timothy Treadwell trying to commune with the grizzly bears in Grizzly Man.
This does not seem to be the case in Stroszek, which is set in the farmlands of Wisconsin instead of the South American jungle or the Alaskan wilderness. Also Stroszek and his companions, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-sort-of Eva and the senile old guy Scheitz, hardly come off as big dreamers.
But it still fits with his usual themes, to some extent. It's just that, instead of big dreams of a lone man taking on nature is the basic American dream we're all taught to believe in. That dream that's supposed to be an integral part of American life is portrayed as being as unattainable as hauling a steamboat over a mountain with a primitive system of pulleys.
Herzog doesn't normally get super-political (part of why that "Boondocks" episode was so awesome), but we do get some nice commentary in Stroszek about how simply declaring people legally free doesn't result in actual freedom. The laws of the market and the laws of nature end up far more powerful than the official laws. This comes particularly clear in this bit where Bruno talks to Eva about his experiences under the Nazis and compares it to what they're currently going through:
Much of the humor in the movie comes from how limited the characters' expectations are. When they first come to America, it shows the statue of liberty and a few scenes of sightseeing in New York, but then takes cuts to rural Wisconsin. In the winter. We also see their new house, a cheap trailer home, and they're overjoyed at the fact that they have their own home! With running water!
And then there's the scene where a local farmer is giving the trio a tour of the town and talking in his midwestern drawl about all the unsolved murders that have occurred there recently. And Eva enthusiastically translates his comments into German for Bruno and Scheitz. Incidentally, parts of the movie were filmed in Plainfield, Wisconsin, home of serial killer Ed Gein. And the Wisconsin locals were all played by Wisconsin locals.
When everything falls apart, one gets reminded of Herzog's documentaries like Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World. Or much more likely, his short documentary How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck, about the exciting world of competitive auctioneering.
That particular one isn't one of Herzog's strongest documentaries, because he gets so mesmerized by the sound of the auctioneers that he forgets to do any talking head commentary. But it works when he shows the auction in Stroszek. He shows it in a matter-of-fact way like a nature documentary. Aside from Scheitz's complaints at the end, there's no condemnation of any individual for what's happening. It's just the way things work.
Plus that auctioneer sounds really cool.
And that scene is followed immediately by the single most amazing attempted robbery scene in the history of cinema. This is the fictional attempted robbery to which all fictional attempted robberies aspire.
Eat your heart out, Bottle Rocket!
And it goes down hill from there. As I mentioned, the subject matter is pretty depressing. Eva runs off to Vancouver leaving Bruno alone with nothing but that frozen turkey. He's ultimately driven to suicide. But even then it finds a way to be pretty funny. Now, this movie was made before those Nancy Kerrigan "What are you going to do next? I'm going to Disney World™!" commercials, but I can only assume they were inspired by Stroszek.
Seriously, he runs into a guy at a diner and tells him his life story. The guy says something to the effect of "You've lost your house. You've lost your woman. What are you going to do next?" Now Bruno is in Wisconsin, and he doesn't have enough money to pay for the gas necessary to get to Florida, so Disney World™ is not an option.
But that doesn't mean he can't do the next best . . .
OH MY GOD!!! LOOK AT THAT CHICKEN DANCE!!!