Not much in Werner Herzog’s early filmography suggests a strong sense of humor—his breakthrough movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), is a harrowing saga involving incest, madness, murder, and obsession—but Stroszek is probably as close as the filmmaker ever came to making an outright comedy. To be clear, Stroszek is very much a Herzog film, because the storyline is bleak, fatalistic, and tragic. However, there’s a strong sense of irony and satire running through the picture, and Stroszek offers a skewed outsider’s vision of rural America, since most of the picture was shot in Wisconsin. The strangeness one often associates with Herzog’s movies is present, as well. For example, poultry plays a major role in the final scenes.
Stroszek opens in Berlin, with the release from prison of simple-minded Bruno Stroszek (played by real-life artist/musician Bruno S.). After receiving a long speech from the prison warden about how Bruno needs to avoid booze because excessive drinking gets him into trouble, Bruno happily exits the prison—carrying his accordion and trumpet—and walks into a nearby establishment called “Beer Heaven.” Picking up the pieces of his old life, Bruno reconnects with elderly eccentric Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) and friendly prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes). Together, they form a surrogate family, even though each is basically a loser. After Eva gets roughed up one too many times by her pimp, the trio relocates to America, where Mr. Scheitz’ nephew, Clayton (Clayton Szalpinksi), operates a low-rent auto garage in the boonies. While Bruno works for Clayton and Eva works as a waitress, the Germans pursue their version of the American Dream, even buying a large mobile home. Alas, their spending outpaces their income, so domestic strife emerges.
On every possible level, Stroszek is both exactly what it appears to be—a simplistic travelogue performed by nonactors—and so much more. Herzog’s use of untrained performers creates an oddly credible vibe, because the behavior of the people onscreen is so peculiar that it rings true. Haven’t we all met people who seem out of sync with the rest of the world, as if they take commands from voices only they can hear? Similarly, the straightforward narrative, which is almost completely bereft of plot twists, has the mundane quality of real life. Things just happen. And, this being a Herzog film, most of those things are disorienting and/or disappointing.
Leading man Bruno S., a former mental patient in real life, doesn’t really act, per se; rather, he simply exists on camera, delivering his singular mix of childlike enthusiasm and deep-seated ennui. In one scene, he makes a sculpture from what appear to be Lincoln Longs, then says, “Eva, I have constructed a schematic representation of how Bruno feels when they’re gently closing all the doors to him.” Indeed, the myriad scenes in which life removes the character’s sense of security are unexpectedly moving. By the time this film’s offbeat protagonist responds to a series of setbacks by making his escape with a frozen turkey as a traveling companion, he becomes something of a hero, even though his predicament is a direct result of drunkenness. To cite a metaphor that will only make sense after seeing Stroszek, we’re all just chickens dancing our way to oblivion.
Herzog has expressed his nihilistic worldview more powerfully in other films, but he’s rarely done so with a tonality so closely approaching warmth.