Even when he made Stroszek (1978), Herzog’s work had reflected parallel interests in documentary and narrative fiction forms. The sublime Fata Morgana (1971) (despite Herzog’s preposterous claim that it is a sci-fi film about an intergalactic war) and the wonderfully perverse Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), almost as much as the explicitly documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and several documentary shorts, clearly came from the documentary tradition. Even ostensibly fiction films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had a kind of documentary feel (the wondrous shots of the natural world in Aguirre, the only-half-mocking “case history” conclusion of Kaspar).
Stroszek marked a decisive, if temporary, move toward the narrative mainstream, a road movie no less (years later, in Rescue Dawn , when Herzog had been largely focusing on documentaries, he returned to genre film-making, with a POW escape movie, producing decidedly conventional results). German ex-con Bruno Stroszek (played by Bruno S, the schizophrenic who had played Kaspar Hauser) joins with two friends and goes to Wisconsin to pursue the American dream. The group gradually disintegrates, Bruno’s piece of the American dream, his mobile home, is repossessed and he takes to the road.
Herzog uses the basic outline, of people on a common quest that goes sour, to explore, as ever, mankind confronting a universe that is indifferent or actively hostile to human aspirations. From its opening shot, of prison bars, to the final image of the cosmic stupidity of a dancing chicken, tightly framed by a window and bathed in the same orange light used in the early prison sequence, a sense of futility pervades the film.
Herzog’s feel for character and narrative are fallible. Thus Stroszek stays remote, sometimes to a fault, from its characters, particularly Eva (Fassbinder semi-regular Eva Mattes, who later did a gender-bending Fassbinder impersonation in Radu Gabrea’s A Man like Eva ), Stroszek’s sometime roommate and translator. But Herzog’s gift for finding or creating expressive images is one of the glories of the cinema. The installation of a mobile home on a piece of vacant land is wryly humorous; the subsequent departure of the home, leaving Stroszek alone to contemplate his solitude, is oddly poignant. The owlishly angular features and television-pitchman manner of a foreclosing banker are at once bitter and funny, particularly as he persists in speaking English to Stroszek, who speaks only German. Indeed, broken communication is a recurring motif: Bruno is mute through much of the final third of the film, and language consistently isolates him from his surroundings, particularly after Eva abandons him.
The isolation and futility become almost palpable after Bruno’s house and television are sold at auction. When he and his friend set off to rob a bank, they find it closed. They shift their attentions to a nearby barber shop, and there, at least, the old man’s brandished gun overcomes the language barrier. Bruno’s “getaway,” particularly a brilliant series of shots of his truck moving down a highway or into a fog bank, as if in a quest for a space in the landscape, is likewise futile. Finally, his truck breaks down and Bruno, in resignation, orchestrates a series of kinetic monuments to futility that culminates in the grimly metaphoric and hopelessly confined dancing chicken.
© 2009 David Coursen