Friday, December 19, 2014

The Dancing Chicken: A Movie Review of Herzog's Stroszek

Colorful chicken bag with his chicks

(Redundant preamble: Although spoilers abound, this is one of those rare movies where it makes almost no difference if you know what happens in it or not. It needs to be seen and experienced. And my spoilers will hopefully not spoil the movie, but have the opposite effect of enticing you to watch it! If you want to get to the dancing chicken first, please disregard all the scribbles and look it up on YouTube. I will not be offended because it is the chicken that really counts here and is the meat of the matter!)

In the past, I had always been somewhat weary when approaching the films of Werner Herzog. His generally acclaimed movies are good but nothing seriously outstanding. It was the documentary Grizzly Man that first raised my eyebrows and the director's standing with me, but it was really Woyzeck (1979) that blew me away.

Now the similar-sounding title of Stroszek (1977) – our intents and purposes here - is intentional. Herzog who had previously worked with Bruno S. in the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had initially wanted him to play Woyzeck as well. Yet since it did not work out since Herzog backed out of his promise, that particular role was given to Klaus Kinski instead (a wise choice indeed). So to compensate for it, Herzog decided to make another movie and wrote the script for Stroszek in merely four days.

There are two characteristics that are part and parcel of almost any Herzog movie. Apart from a stark realism that permeates pretty much all of his films, he is most interested in extreme characters who find themselves in even more extreme situations. Whether it is Fitzcarraldo lifting a ship up a mountain in Peru or the “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell living with grizzlies in the backlands of Alaska and suffering a gruesome death for it, it is the extraordinary that attracts the German director.

Bruno S. was one such person. An abandoned and abused child of a prostitute, this man who was generally deemed insane (but not by Herzog nor his standards) has gone through hell and then some. In fact, the first half of the movie set in Germany mirrors facts and events from Bruno's personal life.

His acting is fully natural because he is basically reenacting parts of his own life. In that sense, it has the feel of a documentary and to add to this, Herzog not only gave all the characters the same given names as their respective actors, but he even chose seasoned criminals to play the criminals who harass poor Bruno.

The first half of the movie is brilliant film-making indeed. It takes Herzog merely minutes to create sympathy for the main characters, mostly Bruno of course but also the accompanying prostitute Eva and the old man Scheitz. Something that James L. Brooks does not achieve in its entirety when it comes to the highly overrated Terms of Endearment (1983), for example.

We see this interesting and odd trio's daily life and their desires and dreams for escape. The generous and kind old man has little to look forward to except a possible trip to the US to visit his American nephew. Bruno has just been released from prison and a caring but stern prison ward gave him a long lecture on the vicissitudes of alcohol. Stay away from bars and if you find yourself there only buy coffee, Bruno is told. It is the drink that has brought him there, and the prison guard wishes him well and does not wish to ever see him on those prison grounds again.

So when Bruno leaves the prison with nobody waiting for him where does he go first? Straight to the adjacent bar to order a beer. When Eva asks him where he has been all this time, he responds with his deadpan yet naive face that he has been “on vacation.”

To protect Eva from her pimps, Bruno puts himself selflessly in danger. He makes money by playing his accordion and singing songs in back alleys. After a humiliating visit by the criminals who make fun of him and threaten him, Bruno finds some comfort with a doctor friend who cannot give him advice per se but who shows him premature babies gripping onto his fingers or, more symbolically, the desperate grip on life by the underprivileged. Life must go on even if one does not get a head start.

Enough is enough, so this unlikely trio Bruno, Eva, and the old man Scheitz decide to leave for the new continent that promises riches and happiness, in short, the elusive quest for the often sought-after American Dream. So far I was very moved by the characters as each of them (minus the criminals of course) were compassionate and complex beings.

Yet when they end up in the States, not only does the landscape change but so do the people. The Americans are portrayed as simple farm folk, as kind but mainly driven by sex and lust for money. Most of the second half deals with having and not having money, including a banker who means well but ends up taking or repossessing all of their possessions. For me, the movie lost some of its emotional drive because very little happens thereafter.

Since the trio finds it hard to adapt to the new lifestyle, they are driven into deep and irretrievable debt. So much so that Eva, the only one of the three who speaks English, picks up prostitution again and leaves with a couple of shady truckers further up north to Vancouver. The old man becomes increasingly paranoid of all Americans and both he and Bruno decide to rob money at gunpoint so that they can get by and be able to buy daily necessities.

When they are about to make those purchases, the old man gets arrested so we have Bruno left with a shotgun and a frozen turkey under his arm. The truck breaks down (after circling inexplicably around the shotgun and turkey, don't ask) in a no-good town (sorry Cherokee, North Carolina). And it all culminates and ends with a rabbit riding a fire truck, a chicken playing the piano, and, most importantly, the dancing chicken.

Ah, the dancing chicken! Now apparently Herzog's crew was unanimously and unequivocally offended by it, and they did not want to have any part of it. Hence they abstained and Herzog had to shoot the scene himself, which he, by the way, considers some of his most poignant film-making. Even he is not entirely sure what the dancing chicken stands for, but he claims it could be seen as a metaphor for life that somebody somewhere is putting in coins, and we all dance to those tunes just like that chicken.

It is silly, surreal, poignant, and unforgettable all in one! What better way to finish up a year and start a brand-new one than with a dancing chicken. Hope you enjoyed this bit, dear reader, and all the best for the holidays and a Happy New Year to you!