Iconoclastic German director Werner Herzog was outrageously prolific in the ’70s, generating eight narrative features and five documentaries. Given this frantic pace, it’s inevitable that some of his projects got short shrift, and Woyzeck is an example. Herzog sped into production on Woyzeck literally just days after completing the filming of his soulful horror film Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), using the same leading man, Klaus Kinski, and the same crew. As such, there’s a temptation to view the spare visual style of Woyzeck as a casualty of crew fatigue, especially since Nosferatu the Vampyre is one of Herzog’s most aesthetically lush films. Furthermore, the pacing and tone of Woyzeck lack Herzog’s usual lyricism, although his singular cinematic voice surges back to the fore in a climactic murder scene, which Herzog films with disturbingly ecstatic slow-motion. In any event, the themes of Woyzeck fit neatly into both the director’s grim filmography and the special body of work that Herzog and madman actor Kinski created together.
Adapted from an incomplete play by Georg Büchner (which the author began writing in the mid-1830s), Woyzeck tells the sad tale of a soldier from a low social class who suffers humiliation at the hands of cruel superiors, a meddling doctor, and an unfaithful lover. On a deeper, metaphorical level, the protagonist also falls victim to the caprices of fate, God, or whichever force is responsible for his life of ignominy. The gist of the piece is that a basically good man can be driven to madness and violence by the emasculating machinations of society—exactly the sort of fatalistic material that Herzog and Kinski excelled at exploring.
Set in a tiny German town in the 19th century, the picture tracks the myriad travails of Freidrich Woyzeck (Kinski). Belittled by his commanding officer (Wolfgang Reichmann), an aristocrat who considers Woyzeck virtually sub-human simply because Woyzeck is poor, Woyzeck is a scandalous figure because he raises a child out of wedlock with Marie (Eva Mattes). Later, the long-suffering soldier seeks aid from a doctor (Willy Semmelrogge), who prescribes nonsensical treatments such as eating a diet consisting solely of peas. Already prone to peculiar behavior, such as rushing through life at a hyperkinetic pace, Woyzeck succumbs to bleak delusions and eventually hears voices that give him instructions; this thread of the story culminates when Woyzeck receives “orders” to kill Marie, whom he learns is sleeping with a handsome drum major (Josef Bierbichler).
Herzog never quite fully translates the allegorical, episodic nature of the source material into pure cinema, because much of the movie unfolds in long takes defined by a nearly stationary camera. Nonetheless, vitality of performance compensates for the lack of visual panache. In particular, no one plays crazy quite like Kinski. With his bulging eyes, flaring nostrils, and gleaming teeth bared like those of a jungle predator, Kinski is a vision of dangerous insanity in every frame, even when his character attempts to enjoy “normal” moments. The single act of casting Kinski gives Woyzeck innate credibility, even if Herzog’s script is mechanical and slight. This actor/director combination went to the same well many times, and most of their other efforts to chart the outer reaches of lunacy were more effective than Woyzeck. Nonetheless, whether it’s taken as a minor part of the Herzog/Kinski oeuvre, as a worthy attempt to complete a literary fragment, or simply as a bizarre study of one man’s descent into a sort of psychological hell, Woyzeck is a unique experience.