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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Werner Herzog | Stroszek



road’s end
by Douglas Messerli

Werner Herzog  (writer and director) Stroszek / 1977

A bit like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Werner Herzog’s Stroszek begins with its central figure, Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) being released from prison. And like the Fassbinder figure, Franz Biberkopf, Stroszek is a slightly dim-witted alcoholic figure who like to get a new start on life, but is somewhat stymied in that transformation because of his relationship with a prostitute.
     The prostitute of Stroszek, Eva (Eva Mattes), is controlled by two violent pimps, who abuse not only her customers, but the girl herself. And when the slow-minded Stoszek invites her to come live the apartment that has been kept for him, in his absence, by an elderly neighbor, Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), the two roughs come looking for him as well.
     Like Biberkopf, again, Stroszek has little to offer in the way of vocational skills; the little money he makes is from playing in glockenspiel and accordion in the courtyards of housing complexes, relying on the goodwill of the denizens.
      Scheitz, however, has been invited to come to the US to live with his nephew in Wisconsin, and when both Stroszek and Eva are beaten, they determine to join him, the nephew assuring them employment as mechanic and waitress. Accordingly, the unlikely trio of idiot, whore, and elderly eccentric join up for a road trip through the mad American heartland.
      For the Wisconsin these visit is not the lovely farmland dotted with lakes and green hills, but a mythical flat rustbelt wasteland, Railroad Flats, whose major reason for existence is the railroad tracks and cars that dominate its landscape.
      Pre-made houses, trucked in like trailers, seem to be the only sense of permanence, as Bruno goes to work in a garage and Eva serves up coffee and steak at the local truckstop. Scheitz goes slightly mad, convinced he has finally been able to register the animal magnetism described by Franz Mesmer.
      Along with the house, evidently, comes a television set and other required luxuries, along with the bills and, soon after, a visit from a slightly embarrassed but nonetheless determined bill collector from the bank (Scott McKain). Evidently, in this new paradise, working full time pays even fewer bills than occasional street performances did in Berlin. Bruno goes back to the bottle and Eva to the oldest profession in the world, both now at odds with each other and their new environment.
      The US into which this inverted trinity has stumbled is filled with more soulless folk, it appears, than even was Berlin of Weimar Republic. What’s even worse is that the inhabitants of this empty world believe that they still live in Eden or, at least, that their world, like Candide’s is the best of possible worlds. The radios belt out tunes of tortured hope and desire, while those listening to them are gradually drained of all dreams and hope. 
      When the inevitable happens, Eva has already skipped town with the truck drivers on their way to Vancouver, with the symbolic father and son left to watch their dream home auctioned off and driven away, soon followed by the television set. The two, facing off into the cold Wisconsin landscape, have nothing left.
       Like those in so many American legends, they use their last few dollars to purchase a pair rifles, intent on a bank robbery; but even their grand drama turns into a comedy when they find the bank closed and take their anger out, instead, on a nearby barbershop, whose owner quickly offers up the few dollars he has in the till. 
       Instead of attempting an escape, the duo enter the local grocery store to pick up a frozen chicken and few bottles of beer. When the police enter the store, they quickly arrest Scheitz without even seeing Stoszek, who might as well have become invisible.
        Stealing the truck the garage in which he works, he heads off to an Indian-owned hotel and amusement arcade, probably near the tourist world of the Wisconsin Dells, where the truck sputters to a dead stop. Frozen bird still in hand, he spends his last few dollars on lunch, speaking with a German-born tourist before he returns to the parking lot, where he propels the truck into a circular pattern before its engine explodes. Across the way he enters the entertainment arcade which features a real rabbit driving a toy fire truck and two chickens, one of whom plays the piano while the other dances. The other major feature of this absurd funhouse seems to be an ever-circling ski-lift that takes it riders up a painted tableau of a winter landscape before returning them back to ground zero. And the movie ends with these two images of meaningless repetition, the chicken unable to stop its mad little stomps, while Bruno rides up his magic mountain from whence he will inevitably be returned—unless, as in so many American stories, he is not shot to death by the policeman who quickly arrives, radioing into headquarters: "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." Such a line might make one howl out in laughter, if it weren’t so very sad. The gentle musician, we realize, has literally come to road’s end.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2015


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