Stroszek Review

Werner Herzog wrote the script for Stroszek in four days as a favour to his friend Bruno S. after letting him down and casting Klaus Kinski in the title role of his planned film of Woyzeck. While the story is entirely fictional, a great deal of Stroszek is based on the lives and personalities of the actors in the film. The fact that they are mostly an eccentric bunch of characters in no way lessens the viewers identification with their troubles and their aspirations nor takes away from the real issues the film raises. The film’s reputation has also been tied to the death of Ian Curtis of Joy Division, it being reportedly the last film he watched before committing suicide. I’m not sure this says anything about Stroszek, but there are certainly scenes and images in this exceptional film that create a lasting impression.

Berlin street musician, Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) is released from a prison asylum with a stern warning from the governor to keep away from drinking, as alcohol has been the cause of all his troubles. Stopping off immediately for a beer at his local bar, he finds that an old friend, Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute, is being beaten and abused by the two thugs who are her pimps. She takes refuge with Bruno, but this only makes her situation worse, and furthermore brings her troubles onto Bruno as well. Bruno’s old landlord and friend, a crazy old man called Herr Scheitz, is planning to emigrate, to live with his nephew in Wisconsin, so Bruno and Eva depart with the old man, hoping to find an escape from Berlin to a better life in America.

With its use of eccentric characters, Stroszek shares some of the themes and even imagery of his earlier rather disturbing Even Dwarfs Started Small, raising questions about who the real freaks are in society and who are the real inmates when life is a prison. Yes, the characters in Stroszek are slightly unusual, but their hopes and aspirations are as real any anyone’s – to be free to live one’s life as one chooses and to be happy. For Bruno and Eva, America is the symbol of their freedom – as it has been and continues to be for so many people. Arriving in Wisconsin, Bruno finds work on a farm and Eva as a waitress in a roadside diner, but they soon find that life in America can be as restrictive as any prison. This is a land where farmers carry guns to protect a strip of land, where serial killers roam, where pre-fabricated homes are delivered on trucks – and are taken away just as easily. The film has been seen as a bitter take on the illusion of the American dream, but Herzog’s vision of the mid-West is no more an all-encompassing view of America than his depiction of the Berlin’s Turkish community, its pimps and prostitutes is representative of the German city. The film’s meaning is more human and intimate and is represented in some smaller, key scenes – the doctor with a premature baby in a children’s hospital and the final extraordinary dancing chicken scene – capturing something deep and truthful about the human condition.

In the same way that Fitzcarraldo can be seen as a tribute to the director’s friend Klaus Kinski, drawing on the actor’s own personality for the strengths of its principal character, so too Stroszek achieves the same sense of truth and authenticity by being based closely around the personality of Bruno S., a street musician, forklift truck driver and part-time actor, who had himself spent 23 years of his life in various institutions after being abandoned by his prostitute mother. He was discovered by Herzog and used in his film The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. There are several other actors from that film used in Stroszek, but few of them are the kind of professional actors as we are used to seeing in films. The supporting cast often have a sense of amateurishness about them, but the central characters are charismatic and genuine. It is far more important to the film’s sense of realism that it uses real-life people in their real-life professions, and even the main characters in the film draw more from their own lives and personalities than portraying fictional characters in fictional situations. Herzog also films appropriately, without unnecessary elaboration or stylistic flourishes, often using a hand-held camera to create a feeling of documentary-like realism that is at the same time effective and quite beautiful.

Herzog here treats the actors not as characters to build a story around, but builds the story around the people in the film, bringing out their essential nature in a remarkable way and achieving some strikingly unique and inimitable scenes. There is scarcely a scene in the film that is not extraordinary in one way or another and powerfully meaningful. In the process, along with the photographic realism of Thomas Mauch’s photography, it raises the film far beyond what would otherwise be a conventional story, achieving something that touches on a deeper level of realism.

Stroszek is released in the UK by Anchor Bay. The disc is Region 2 encoded, and receives a treatment similar to the releases in their Herzog Kinski Collection in terms of quality and supporting features.

The film is presented in 1.66:1 ratio, anamorphically enhanced on a dual-layer disc. The quality of the actual image is little more than averagely good. It’s a little bit grainy in places, on the soft side and there is the odd sign of compression blocking and some flicker in the image. Contrast is slightly light, but colours are relatively strong, as are blacks. There is however no great shadow detail in the image and it can often look quite flat and murky in interiors. As the film has a vaguely realist, almost documentary feel, it’s quite a suitable picture quality. It’s not exceptional by any means and it certainly won’t please anyone who is particular about perfect picture quality, but it shouldn’t unduly trouble anyone watching this just for the wonderful film it is.

There is the choice of three audio tracks – Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. There is little difference between either of them and such a selection is probably unnecessary considering that the original soundtrack would hardly be of the highest quality. The DTS is slightly better, but in reality it is practically a 1.0 mix. Occasionally, but very rarely, the sound is delivered to the rear speakers at a very low volume to create a slightly echoey effect for interior scenes – but there’s no real manipulation of the soundtrack in any way that is going to upset anyone, particularly as the original soundtrack is also included. The actual quality of the soundtrack is variable, dialogue usually fairly clear, but at times slightly muffled, which is probably more to do with the conditions in which the film was made.

English subtitles are automatically selected when any of the film soundtracks are selected and they cannot be switched off on the fly. However, if the director’s commentary track is selected, they are not displayed. If you wish to remove the subtitles, you can select this option and switch the audio on the fly, since this is not restricted. The subtitles are good and clear, but only the German dialogue is translated. There are no hard of hearing subtitles for English language dialogue later in the film’s American scenes.

Werner Herzog Commentary
Herzog, as usual in the company of Norman Hill, delivers a fascinating commentary on the film, talking about the colourful real-life characters used in the film, how he came to meet them and how it was working with them. He talks about he sees the film aiming for an “ecstatic truth” as opposed to a cinéma vérité truth, something I think he successfully achieves here.

Trailer (3:17)
The trailer is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic and is in German, with some German voice-over, but no English subtitles. It’s still full of spoilers.

This takes a brief look at Herzog’s background before becoming a filmmaker and highlights the themes of his most famous films.

A selected filmography is included for Herzog covering his feature films and documentary work.

Stroszek is one of the best examples of Herzog’s filmmaking genius for finding inspiration in the actors he uses and symbolic resonance in the natural locations he places their characters in. There is nothing conventional about Stroszek. It’s an astonishingly powerful film, a beautiful film, a completely unique film that few directors could even conceive of, let alone achieve. In the way that it reaches a level of truth and realism that transcends the conventionality of its anti-fairytale storyline it is probably a masterpiece. Anchor Bay’s DVD presents the film reasonably well. It’s hardly going to impress viewers who like DVDs to demonstrate perfect picture and sound quality, but with an adequate transfer and interesting commentary, this is a fair presentation of an exceptional film and should be recommended for that alone.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:53:57

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