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  • Stroszek
    • Stroszek
    • Runtime:115 min
    • Release Date:2014-07-26 01:33:34
    • Director: Werner Herzog
    • Genres: Drama
    • Studio:
MOVIE REVIEW:Stroszek
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*** This review may contain spoilers ***

At the climax of this somewhat tragic tale, Bruno, a German immigrant
whose quest for happiness in America has failed, goes on an amateur,
what-the-hell crime spree, turns on all the exhibits in a barren
mid-winter Indian tourist trap, and climbs aboard a cable car for a
final trip to the mountain top, carrying a shotgun and a frozen turkey.
One of the exhibits he activates is a piano-playing chicken who hammers
out an impeccable version of Schubert's Scherzo in B Minor. Another is
a dancing chicken. The chicken walks out into a glass case, plucks a
piece of string, and begins scratching atop a slowly revolving round
table the size of an old record player. The Tribal Police arrive and
examine the scene of the crime, which includes a burning truck and a
recently robbed grocery store. One of the cops is on the squad car's
radio. "We got a single passenger on the lift and an electrician's on
his way out. Somebody turned on the electricity and we can't stop the
dancing chicken." The director, Werner Herzog, lingers on that chicken,
scratching away over and over on a revolving platter, his head
completely empty of thought. What are we to make of all this? Except
that we are all dancing chickens manipulated by some deranged outer
force.

If it isn't that, then I'm lost.

A good case could be made that this movie is utterly pointless. Bruno,
a shabby caricature of a man, is released from an institution and
returns to his apartment in Berlin, where he has two friends. One is an
elderly eccentric and the other an abused whore. The pixy-like old man
carries on about how easy it is to get rich and live happily in
America. The whore saves up her money and the three of them travel to a
truck stop in Wisconsin. They buy a mobile home and a television set
and things look bright for a while, until they fall behind in their
mortgage payments.

Sick of it all and desperate, the hooker takes off in one of the trucks
for Canada. The old man goes bonkers and believes it's all a
conspiracy, so he and the not-too-bright Bruno hold up a barber shop,
run across the street, and begin buying groceries. The old man is
arrested for armed robbery, Bruno steals a truck, takes off on his own,
and finally runs out of money and gas at the Indian tourist trap.

My old German grandpappy had a saying: "Ein Mann hat das Bodel und ein
Mann hat das Gelt." Some people have money and others wind up with the
bag. Bruno and his friends — and even his enemies — are losers from
beginning to end. It's a long, slow story of social suicide. All three
end up worse than they began, as bad as that was.

And when I say "long", I mean "long." Herzog — here as elsewhere –
has a tendency to hold on stylized shots for a long long long time. The
camera is placed behind and above Bruno as a huge truck pulls his
forfeited mobile home away. The camera remains static as the mobile
home sluggishly departs to the right. The camera stays in the same
place and so does Bruno, who is now staring at the empty space that his
mobile home had occupied. He continues to stare as the seconds tick by
and a scratchy old record plays a tune called "Silver Bells." If you're
patient, and if you're sensitive to mood and character and composition,
you'll get much more out of this movie than if you're expecting some
plot-driven dynamo.

I'd like to compare this to Robert Altman's exercises in improvisation
but I can't. One senses an intentionality behind Herzog's stuff that's
absent from Altman's movies. What I mean is, Herzog seems to have
something in mind behind the apparent non sequiturs and stylized shots.
Herzog has a goal, whereas many of Altman's movies seemed designed for
nothing more than seeing what happened next. In a sense, Altman stays
with the dancing chicken because that's all there is, while Herzog
believes that there is somebody turning the machine on and off.

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*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The DVD, by Anchor Bay, is part of their Werner Herzog Collection, and
comes with a theatrical trailer, production and biographical notes, and
a great commentary with Herzog and Norman Hill. In it, Herzog spins his
usual informative and cogent anecdotes, rips conventional filmmaking
techniques, and resents the tendency of critics to deconstruct every
little thing in a film. Not every metaphor has to be based in logic.
The Keatsian idea(l) of Negative Capability has never been better
embodied in the work of a filmmaker than it is in Herzog's canon, for
many of his images simply are, and do not have a narrative heft. In
this film, the perfect example is the dancing chicken? It can mean a
number of things, but the very act of attempting to pin it down robs it
of some of its power. The German is subtitled, and the English is not.
As a multi-lingual film dubbing would not work. The film transfer is
fine, and it is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. While not a film that makes
great use of visuals, there are moments, such as the film's opening,
shot through a glass of water, that show that Herzog and his
cinematographer Thomas Mauch knew how to distort reality just enough to
blur fiction and nonfiction seamlessly. The use of American folk music
from Chet Atkins and Sonny Terry is a departure from the grander
musical schemes employed with Florian Fricke and Popol Vuh in other
Herzog classics, but is apropos for the dour American grotesques that
creep into the film, starting with shotgun wielding farmers who drive
their plows right next to each other, to protect a small strip of land
both claim as theirs.

But the real gem of the commentary is Herzog's explanation of not only
the film's provenance in regards to Bruno S., but how he chose the town
in the first place. He calls that part of the country Errol Morris
Country because he and the famed American documentarian (Gates Of
Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, The Fog Of War) were fascinated by Ed Gein,
who dug up all of the corpses in a circle around his mother's grave.
They wanted to know if he dug up his mother. What relevance this has is
anyone's guess. Morris chickened out, so Herzog decided to abandon the
idea and write his screenplay for Bruno, thus angering Morris, who felt
that he should have had some involvement, and that Herzog tread on his
'turf,' by filming there. While in Plainfield to write the screenplay,
Herzog met many of the non-actors who populate the film. Herzog also
relates gems about Bruno, such as his painting fan blades the colors of
the rainbow, and discovering that when it spun fast it blurred into
white, or how he would walk about with his fly open, unawares.

Also, the use of non-actors is perfect. It is in minor details like
this, that veer away from script and allow actors to fully embody their
characters, that the realistic aspects of a film can shine. Most
filmmakers would never even consider such of import.

Films like Stroszek are merely minor palliatives for that ill, but they
are better than nothing, and hopefully will last longer than the grim
impulses which make them so cogent.

|||

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The richness of "Stroszek" strengthens with multiple viewings. Haunting
cinematography by Thomas Mauch has a bitter-sweet humor faithful to
mid-century American experience. Underscored by sentimental American
popular tunes many from Chet Akins presage "Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes"
enhanced by pensive editing by Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus.

The late Bruno Schleinstein plays a protagonist. If you do not know his
story,watch the film and then read about him. In the film, he also
plays (his) piano, accordion, glockenspiel, and hand bells. This is
music by Bruno S. himself. Even though the movies tells a story set in
America, it is a film about Bruno S. and, in an important way, a film
for him.

Eva Mattes, famous for her work in four masterworks by Rainer Maria
Fassbinder, brings a dry, sardonic sense to what might have been a
maudlin role. Many who play in the film are amateurs the crew met on
location. The second cameraman Edward Lachman often improvised English
language dialogue in the moment. Literally, Mr. Herzog used the people
he and the crew met at the moment. Sometimes, especially in the
sections shot in German, those playing the role were known ahead of the
shooting. The scenes early in the movie with a brutal pimp are played
by a brutal pimp. The premature baby is with an actual doctor who works
with premature babies.

Editor Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus took part in the shooting.
Improvisation plays a major part in the tonality of "Stroszek". With
Bruno S. and others, improvisation plays a vital and central role
though Bruno knows what he is to do.

This is a terrific film that I relate to Michael Ritchie's "Smile",
another masterwork that explores similar themes. Yet, Herzog's view of
American life is not bitter like that of Mr. Ritchie. It is brutal—but
not meanly so. I think that the meanness has more to do with the story
than with Mr. Herzog's opinion of the United States. He admits to
having deep affection for the heartland of American and to the people
who live there.

For one who loves the immense formal beauty of European Modern French,
Swedish, and Italian films, watching German movies is sometimes hard in
some ways. Many films from the wave of German movies of which Herzog's
work is part and example have a hard look. Some of them are hard to
watch. The humour is hard even if it softens bitterness. This is not an
optimistic film but that is not the mood that Herzog finds about
America. It is simply the mood of the story.

Do not listen to thecommentary on the DVD until you first watch this
film without it. Then do listen to the commentary. From the commentary,
you learn precisely how the movie blurs lines between documentary and
fictional film narrative.

In the end, we realize the "Brave New World" image of conditioned life
in America—in the trained rabbit and poultry, a duck and especially a
chicken, at Cherokee,North Carolina. Sonny Terry, blowing his fierce
blues harmonica, beats the frantic and pointless pace at which we live.
Funny and tragic but not mean, these images infect your memory.

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