Wednesday, August 9, 2017

#2,404. Stroszek (1977)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Bruno S., Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz

Line from this film: "We are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off, can't stop the dancing chickens"

Trivia: Reportedly, this is the last movie musician Ian Curtis of the English band Joy Division watched before committing suicide

It’s become a tradition that every time I watch a Werner Herzog film on DVD, I immediately do so again with the director’s commentary track switched on. As it turns out, Herzog had quite a bit to say about his 1977 film Stroszek

Stroszek may very well be the legendary directors' strangest picture, yet, for me, its peculiar nature is what makes the movie so damn endearing.

After being released from a Berlin prison (where he served time for drunkenness and disorderly conduct), Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) returns to his small apartment, which his elderly neighbor, Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), looked after for him while he was away. 

Soon after his release, Bruno runs into his old flame Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute who is beaten on a daily basis by her two pimps (Wilhelm von Homburg and Burkhard Driest). Eva agrees to move in with Bruno, at which point the pimps begin harassing him as well. 

To escape the abuse, Bruno and Eva decide to tag along with Scheitz, who is moving to Wisconsin, U.S.A., to live with his nephew, an auto mechanic named Clayton (Clayton Szalpinski).

Once in Wisconsin, Bruno and Eva purchase a trailer home and move in together. Bruno goes to work at Clayton’s garage, while Eva takes a job as a waitress at a truck-stop diner. For a while, it looks as if the two have found happiness in America, but it isn’t long before boredom sets in. 

Will the couple work through their problems, or was their love doomed from the start?

In his commentary track for Stroszek, Herzog gives us a little background on his star, Bruno S. The abused son of a prostitute, Bruno spent years drifting in and out of prisons and mental institutions, and for a time worked as a street musician (in one of Stroszek’s earliest scenes, we even get a chance to watch him perform). In fact, Herzog admits that much of what we see in the first part of Stroszek is a retelling of Bruno’s life story (right down to the apartment used for the film, which was the actual one Bruno lived in at the time).

In addition to Bruno, Stroszek features a number of performers who had never been in front of a camera before. Clayton Szalpinski was a real-life mechanic from Wisconsin who Herzog met a year or so earlier. Herzog even wrote parts in Stroszek for two guys featured in his documentary short How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck; former auctioneer champion Ralph Wade appears briefly, doing what he does best; and announcer Scott McCain plays an oh-so-polite banker who visits Bruno and Eva when they fall behind on the payments for their trailer.

Herzog also relates a few humorous anecdotes about the making of Stroszek, like how he was arrested twice in one day in New York City (for strapping himself to the hood of a car while shooting a driving sequence), and provides a little background on some of the film’s more unusual scenes (including the out-of-the-blue bank robbery; Scheitz’s attempt to research animal magnetism with an amp meter; and the dancing chicken that pops up in the final scene).

All of the weirdness above may make Stroszek sound like a comedy. 

And it is... sorta. 

But more than anything, it’s the sad tale of two people searching for happiness and finding only misery and despair. There is hope when Bruno and Eva leave Berlin behind and move to America, but as Herzog is quick to point out, loneliness is universal, and can snatch both joy and love out from under you when you least expect it.

Stroszek is, indeed, a bizarre movie, but the feelings and emotions it generates are as genuine as they come.

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