Stroszek (1977): A Nowhere Man in Wisconsin, or: the Perpetually Dancing Chicken

I’d been saving Stroszek for quite a while, ever since I first purchased the Anchor Bay collection of Herzog films (along with their essential Herzog/Kinski collection); I was waiting for the right occasion to watch the film. It seemed to me that watching the film would be a sort of perfect way to celebrate Herzog’s birthday; given that his work has engaged me enough to inspire the title of the blog, I owe the man that much at least.

Herzog’s idea of an “ecstatic truth” comes through his deliberate effort to transcend the mere truth of facts; he’s been quote before as having said that is truth were only measured by something’s factuality the truest book in the world would be the New York City phone book: the book contains millions of names and numbers and addresses, all of which are empirically verifiable as true. It is only through the various arts that the truth of facts and accountants can be transcended and the poetic, ecstatic, truth revealed. Stroszek demonstrates Herzog embracing this principle fully; the film’s characters all bear the actual names of the actors who play them; many of the locations the film uses in Germany are places from Bruno S.‘s actual life: his apartment, the streets where he played his own music, etc.; the details of the history of Stroszek in the film are mined directly from Bruno S.’s personal history: the time in prisons, the story of bed-wetting and others. The film exists as a highly personal, near documentarily conceived, piece of film. Herzog makes use of Bruno S.’s life to craft a film directly in line with their previous work, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

Reflections of the outside worldThe film begins by showing Stroszek being released from a prison stay, the opening shot shows Stroszek moving behind bars toward release; already, with its opening shot,  the film establishes visually that Stroszek is trapped in a structure created by society. He is given back his worldly possessions – his instruments and clothing, his money, etc. – in a demonstration of the manner in which a social identity is put on, or affected. The credits play as Stroszek watched the external world moving as it’s reflected in a glass of water hanging in the window of his old cell, illustrating both the illusory nature of the social “civilized” world – here the echo of Kaspar Hauser is heard clearly – and the manner in which Bruno has been removed from civilization by his imprisonment. Bruno is hesitant to leave the prison, declaring that he does not want to go, after receiving the gifts of a blue angel and a tiny paper ship from his roommates; the tiny ship acts to foreshadow the trip undertaken by Bruno later in film and indicates a sense of the individual’s scale in comparison to the journey of life.

Upon being released from prison Bruno immediately absconds to a bar – where the warden explicitly warned him against going – to find Eva (Eva Mattes) his girlfriend and erstwhile prostitute. Herzog juxtaposes the calm, quiet and kind demeanor of the “criminal” Bruno with the crass, vulgar, cruel and greedy “civilized” personages of Eva’s pimps, who berate and extort money from one of her clients before berating Eva and eventually physically and mentally abusing both Eva and Bruno. Together with their neighbour Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) the pair conceive of a plan to leave Germany for America to escape the ignominy of their low financial means and the violence being inflicted upon them by the two men.

Bruno meets with his doctor and explains his situation with the bullying pimps and the doctor takes him to the wing of the hospital where they house the premature babies. The doctor explains that the babies are premature, born fully unprepared for the world, but still possess powerful reflexes naturally; he explains that inherent to each child is the potential to be president, despite its poor start. The natural ability of humankind to cope and prosper rings positively for Bruno and also sounds as another echo of Kaspar Hauser’s critique on “civilized” society and the means by which one is deemed to be normal or deranged. Stroszek is likewise concerned, but to a lesser degree, with the extent to which socialized conceptions of goodness and normalcy are in tension with the reality of the way the world behaves. Scheitz informs Bruno and Eva that he has a nephew in Wisconsin, so the trio raise funds for the journey – almost entirely financed by Eva’s profession – and set off for America together toward an ostensibly better life.

The relocation to America begins with an ignominious start, however, when officials at the American arrival confiscate Beo, Bruno’s pet bird who he had taught to speak (or, more appropriately mimic speech). The immigrants take a the very usual route of arriving to America in New York City – seeing the sights – before heading west to Wisconsin and Scheitz’s nephew. Wisconsin proves to be the opposite of the size and grandeur of NYC upon their arrival; the land is desolate, cold and barren save for the rusted out cars and junk that litter the fields. The town is called “Railroad Flats” and indicates that this is a transitory place, it’s only consistent population the railway cars and trucks that stop in town before moving along to somewhere else. It is a place with a great sense of migrancy.

That this place may not be entirely different from Germany, Berlin most particularly, comes in the nephew’s relation of a story to the trio of the farmers who feud over a strip of land adjacent to his property. These farmers dispute who owns the land and, as such, mow around it simultaneously, armed with rifles aboard their tractors. Surely this arrangement of property dispute and the potential threat of violence does not seem out-of-place for citizens of Berlin, at this point still containing its infamous wall dividing East and West Germany.

An Accordion Makes A Happy HomeEva and Bruno do potentially the single most American thing that can be done and go into debt to buy a house for themselves. That they buy a mobile home speaks to both the transitory nature of living in Railroad Flats and to their own inability to construct a life of their own accord, but rather inhabit a constructed and idealized, but intrinsically impermanent, life. The idyllic home life of the couple is quickly disturbed by the financial pressures of the bank and the loan they had taken out to purchase the house. Eva is driven back to prostitution to make money to pay off the debt and Bruno’s despondency with life in America grows; he had thought life in America would be prosperous and different from his life in Germany, but here finds himself being kicked equally hard just no longer physically, but spiritually. Bruno relates a story – from his own actual life – where after wetting the bed he was forced to hold up the stained sheet all day, receiving an assault to his back should his arms tire. He says that in America this sort of punishment is pervasive, it surrounds them, their tormentors just do it politely, smiling now, as he tells Eva that, “The prison doors are wide open and we’re not in Germany anymore!” And later, in the midst of a vulgarly carnal exchange between the nephew and his friend, Bruno laments that he might as well have stayed in Germany and that he “came to America to watch his world fall apart”. And fall apart it does.

Eva takes up with two truckers she meets at work and leave Bruno, telling him that she is going with them to Vancouver, laving Bruno to carry the debt on their home. The spectre of the bank makes his presence known again and tells a resigned Bruno that the bank is repossessing his home and possessions due to his defaulting on the loan agreement; even without understanding English, Bruno knows what the visit entails and is forced to watch as his home and television are auctioned off in front of him.

The Burden of Dreams RemovedThe auction itself calls to mind precisely Bruno’s statement about the bed-wetting punishment versus the spirit of the people in America; the auctioneer and the bank representative, indeed everyone gathered to bid or view the spectacle, do so under the pretense of being benevolent and concerned citizens, but are actually there to scavenge the corpse of Bruno’s hopes. Bruno mills through the crowd as the auctioneer goes through his strange and sped-up auctioneerisms and Herzog holds the shot of Bruno standing before his home as it is trucked away, leaving him standing before an empty lot. Surely a perfect example of Bruno’s plight and a reminder of the potential threat faced by Herzog’s own burden of dreams as a film-maker. As the auctioneer and banker leave they are accosted by Scheitz who implores them to leave the house in German; the auctioneer sums up the entire problem of the trio – and many of society’s, perhaps – by simply stating, “I’m sorry friend, I don’t understand you” and driving away without making any attempt to comprehend him.

Things unspool for Bruno and Scheitz quickly after this; Scheitz believes this all to be part of a conspiracy by the bank and sets out to hold up the bank for money, but seeing it closed instead holds up a barbershop next door. The pair immediately go to a neighboring grocery store where Scheitz is arrested and Bruno purchases a turkey before stealing a car from Scheitz’s nephew and driving until it breaks down. The truck breaks down in a town populated by native Americans who have built their town around the tourist industry. Bruno tells his story to a man in a restaurant who speaks German and sets back out, leaving the truck running in circles as it lights on fire. He passes by several booths with animals who perform when paid: a dancing chicken, a rabbit on a fire truck, another bird that plays the drum.

A perfect signBruno puts money in each of the animal’s booths before setting out on a chairlift with his rifle that takes him up and back down the mountain. Even after transcending the cyclic machinations of man, in their representative form of the flaming truck, Bruno is still unable to climb the mountain and stay at the top. The cyclic nature of the creation prevents what should be a representation of Bruno’s ascension beyond the finite world of man. The chairlift has a sign on its back reading “Is this really me!” and a more perfect question could not be asked; Bruno has had all of his dreams stripped away and found life in both Germany and America unconducive to his happiness. He is a man without a place, rather, merely a circular motion in the pursuit of, but never achieving, his dreams. Herzog shows Bruno begin a second ascent of the mountain before ambiguously inserting the sound of a gun shot. The audience never sees Bruno direct this at himself, so it is purposefully unclear as to whether or not Bruno has ended his life.

The Infamous Dancing Chicken.The film’s final minutes consist of footage of the dancing chicken to Sonny Terry‘s “Old Lost John” (a song he would late use again in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans). The absurdity is reinforced by the officer on the scene’s call to dispatch prior to this footage, he states “We have a 10-80 out here, a truck on fire, we have a man on the lift. We are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off, can’t stop the dancing chickens. Send an electrician, we’re standing by.” The dancing chickens strip away the humanistic hubris of Shakespeare’s assertion that “All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” by leveling the men and women to animals, with pretensions of an elevated being. This theme receives fuller explication in Herzog’s later documentary Grizzly Man, which is also gestured towards early in the film when Eva states that she has heard there is a park in New York where bears walk freely and is informed by Scheitz that they are grizzlies.

Herzog uses comedy absurd comedy to illuminate the general absurdity lurking behind living in a civilized society and human kind’s belief in its ability to transcend both nature and its own limitations. By re-purposing the details of Bruno S.’s life Herzog is able to demonstrate how a man who belongs nowhere is intrinsically a man with whom we all share a quality; he is forever demonstrating how the external moves to the centre of society, the normalcy of the weird and the absurdity of the conventional: this is our ecstatic truth as a society, to be together and to be radically absurd.

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