I have seen films more bizarre than Werner Herzog's 1976 opus Stroszek, but none perhaps that are odder. I would scarcely call it an avant-garde film -- in fact, it's one of the most realistic movies I've ever watched -- but any movie that ends with a policeman saying over radio, "We've got a truck on fire, can't find the switch to turn the ski lift off, and can't stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician" is going to require a certain willing mindset. Herzog cast his second muse, Bruno S., in the lead role, and for once it's really true what they say: you couldn't have made the film without him.
Herzog first spotted Bruno in a documentary for German television concerning Berlin street musicians and plucked him to play the lead in his superb The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Though the part normally could call for a young man in his early 20s, Herzog's casting of this 41-year-old factory worker was a triumphant one, as Bruno's horrific past gave an edge to the role of a child who'd been abused then neglected and finally set loose to a world in which he couldn't assimilate.
Stroszek takes it one step further: Herzog builds the entire narrative around the real Bruno's past. Bruno S. was born to a prostitute in 1932 who beat him and sent him to an institution for retarded children. Even worse, this was in the era of the Nazis, who experimented on the children in these facilities (called Ausschusskinder, or "the discarded children"). At 9, he made his first escape attempt, and spent 23 of his first 26 years in various institutions and prisons. The Bruno of this film -- I will make this distinction now, as after a time the two become one and the same -- is released from prison with a warning from one of the officers to stop drinking. Immediately, he heads to the pub.
Bruno returns to his apartment, filled with pianos and accordions and glockenspiels and takes to the streets with his wares, singing darkly humorous tragicomedies while playing his various instruments simultaneously. Take just one look at this shaggy, drunken street urchin and you'll see the persona that Tom Waits has built an impressive career upon trying to imitate. Bruno doesn't play for money, he plays because playing gives him comfort. At the pub, he gives a prostitute a shoulder to cry on after she suffers abuse from her pimp. The pimp becomes jealous, and he terrorizes the both of them. Equally fed up with their lives in Berlin, Bruno and Eva decide to accompany Bruno's eccentric, elderly neighbor Scheitz when he moves to Wisconsin to live with his nephew.
When they reach their destination, Bruno gets a job working for Scheitz's nephew -- who, incidentally is a fully tanned All-American instead of anything approximating German; Herzog used locals for his local roles, presumably to aid his style of seeking the "ecstatic truth" as well as a ploy to distract people from his lack of any shooting permits -- at an auto shop, while Eva works as a waitress. With the extra money Eva saved up from her prostitution, the band buys a 1973 Fleetwood mobile home. Life is sweet.
For a time, anyway. Bruno doesn't speak a word of English and never learns, perhaps because the real Bruno's mental illness and disability are reflected in this version. He knows enough though to understand that the papers he and Eva so happily signed for that mobile home will entail payments, and, sure enough, a polite bank representative, all the more excruciating in his sweetness, comes calling. And if Herzog really booked non-professional actors, then Scott McKain is almost as impressive a find as Bruno himself; McKain is so good, so darkly funny, as the bank official that had he not appeared in one of the strangest movies ever made with the most unpredictable director around, he'd have at least broken into some sort of cult status.
The eventual tragedy of Stroszek makes itself plain early in the film: this strange trio is simply too mismatched, too unsure of what they expect from America other than "America-ness," to stay together. As Bruno smiles and nods through his day job, Eva must turn tricks once more to make the cash for the house payments. Scheitz, meanwhile, researches and tries to detect via a sort of radar animal magnetism (not sexual attraction, mind you; the original definition concerning a magnetic fluid flowing through animate beings). Eva initially sleeps with Bruno out of gratitude for his kindness, but his drunken, depressed ramblings eventually drive her away, and at last she runs off with some truckers to Vancouver.
What makes Herzog so different -- and so great -- is that he doesn't tell us how to feel about all this. He regards the misery of this sordid crew with neither derision nor pity. Instead, he looks upon them as curious and fascinated by these weird characters as we are. Herzog was vilified -- perhaps rightly so -- for using Bruno S. in his films and using so much of Bruno's private life in his two leading roles, but Herzog states in his commentary that he did not use Bruno so much as Bruno used him. I don't know what the hell he's talking about, but there's certainly a hint of street wisdom in Bruno's eyes: before Eva leaves, he confronts her for shutting her door to him and holds up a jumbled wooden sculpture. "This is a schematic model of how it looks inside Bruno," he says in his usual third person, "They're closing all the doors on him." He rails against the forces weighing down on them and how terrible life in America is. "They don't kick you here," Eva chides. "No, not physically," Bruno retorts, "Here, they do it spiritually."
I would suspect that what Herzog meant by his comment is that Bruno's performance is so raw, so personal, so unashamed in its honesty that it borders on being off-putting: we're used to actors, the sort of people who want to make sure that people like me italicize the word "actor" because their characters have FEELINGS and PATHOS and damn it they're going to tell us what they are! O.K., that's beyond harsh, but even the best acting by people who do everything they can to get inside their roles is still acting; Bruno is simply Bruno, too odd to be real yet obviously an actual person. I got my copy of the DVD in a box set from Anchor Bay (which I highly recommend along with their collection of the Herzog/Kinski collaborations), and the inside of the cover shows a French poster with the title La Ballade de Bruno. I find this a more appropriate title, as this strange but linear tale is very much the lyrical story of Bruno's life, shot in Herzog's trademark verité style to emphasis its reality. It had been a while since I last saw the film and I forgot some of the plot details and most of the lines, but I remembered Bruno, and this latest viewing only cements him in my memory.
Bruno's remark concerning the subtler cruelty of America, combined with Eva returning to prostitution and that iconic (with Herzog's oeuvre at least) shot of the mobile home being taken away in an auction just as speedily as it was driven to our merry band at the start, as if to say, "Easy come, easy go," can easily suggest a blistering attack on the American Dream. Herzog denies this in the commentary and suggests that the film is a "loving eulogy to America," and I'm sure that in that crazy head of his this is somehow a nicer thing to say (a word of advice to Herzog neophytes: always circle his statements cautiously, as attacking them head-on is suicide). I agree that the film is not expressly a commentary on America, as its characters are so strange and ill-fitting that criticizing a country for being unable to house them is unfair. However, one cannot ignore the brilliance of these scenes, and even if only a part of the film addresses the hollow promise of the American Dream it still remains one of the more memorable takedowns of that hallowed lie.
Herzog sees the film as more of a black comedy, though, and that's readily apparent in the final 10 minutes or so, during which the film turns from a sort of Herzogian road movie into outright farce. With Eva and the mobile home gone, Scheitz loses his mind and declares the whole thing a conspiracy, and he takes the now-fully alcoholic Bruno to rob the bank. Only the bank is closed, so they run across the street and take $30 from the barber shop. As they use the money to buy groceries, cops bust Scheitz but fail to notice Bruno, who makes off with a frozen turkey and Scheitz's shotgun.
Of the final moments, I shall say little. That bit of dialogue I posted at the start tells you everything you need to know about the ending, as well as the rest of the film. Suffice to say, it must surely rank as one of the finest scenes in Herzog's career, if not his absolute peak. Regarding the dancing chickens, Herzog calls them a "great metaphor" but professes he does not know of what. I'll crib from Ebert, who got me into Herzog in the first place, and say that the chicken represents us and that we all, in effect, dance for money. Bruno's terrible past has left him unable to function within any normal society, and his solution seems less tragic when one considers the sort of life he'd lead if he stayed in his current situation. In a perverse way that only Herzog could pull off, there's a sort of loving darkness to the whole thing.
With his performance here Bruno S. could have guaranteed an impressive niche in film; he certainly couldn't play any old role that came down the pipe, but there had to be at least some intellectuals and cineastes out there clamoring for something new from this fascinating figure. Perhaps it's best that he didn't though; his collaborations with Herzog rely so completely on Bruno's own story that to go back to that well once more would fully lapse into exploitation, and he couldn't bring the same intensity and charisma to a role that actually required acting. I don't mean to cast aspersions, but Bruno's honest is what made him interesting; besides, I don't know that hiring a man who already displayed a tendency to refer to himself in the third person to play other people is entirely healthy. Bruno never acted again, but he continues to paint and sing, someone who has no place in this world but makes his own in his art. That is the sadness, and the joy, of Stroszek, one of the greatest works of the most daring director in cinema.