Over the last decade, Werner Herzog has become something of an unexpected media personality. Through his Bavarian cadence and oft-repeated tales of globetrotting adventures in pursuit of filmmaking, his image in the public eye has become something of an eccentric mystic, which has aided the 79-year-old director in a late career turn as a franchise film and television actor and sought-after interview subject. By all means, Herzog’s own films are part of the mythology — for good reason; from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to Grizzly Man (2005), the man has notched multiple masterpieces in his belt which at their strongest present grand, fantastical visions of individualist men, both real and imagined, driving out into the world in mad, delusional pursuit of creation, dominance and fulfillment.
But for a director as stylistically consistent as Herzog, it is his collaborations with the late Bruno Schleinstein, aka Bruno S., that show a different side of the director. Playing at the Brattle over the next week as part of their retrospective series “The Fictions of Werner Herzog,” The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977) are among the most tender, sympathetic, and emotionally vulnerable of Herzog’s narrative films, both heightened by their hypnotic leading man. Kaspar Hauser screens on Sunday 9/19 at 6 p.m. and Stroszek will play on Wednesday 9/22 at 5:15 and 8 p.m.
Born in 1932, Bruno S. was a German painter and musician. Mentally disabled and considered an eccentric, Bruno suffered a violent childhood where he was regularly beaten by his mother and spent much of his developmental years in asylums. Described as friendly but quick to anger as a child growing up during World War II, he was subjected to gruesome Nazi medical experiments at the Wiesengrund Asylum near Eger, Germany– which ultimately killed 81 children– and was lucky to survive.
He spent the rest of his life living in Berlin, working as a forklift driver in a production plant while painting and performing as a street musician in his own time. A multi-instrumentalist fond of the accordion, glockenspiel, and piano, Bruno’s German folk-inspired songs carry the same declarative candor and outsider pathos of a Daniel Johnston or Wild Man Fischer (you can watch his performances on YouTube, though they also take centerpiece positioning in Stroszek).
But he caught the eye of Herzog via Lutz Eisholz’s documentary on social outcasts, Bruno der Schwarze (1970), in which his buoyant personality, tendency to refer to himself in the third person, and vibrant singing made him the focus. After some fighting between Herzog and his financiers, this lead to his casting in the title role in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, a historical biopic about a teenage foundling in the 19th century who was kept locked in a basement his entire life with no human interaction and slid food while he was sleeping, before being suddenly released into the world at 16. The story of a young man forced to act out Plato’s Cave is proper fodder for Herzog, whose films frequently focus on characters who through some form of insanity, disability or psychosis reject the norms of society and achieve either greatness or destruction.
In Kaspar Hauser, Bruno’s stilted presence and long, vacant stares create a blank slate of a character experiencing the world for the first time. But there’s also a childlike innocence in his performance — on screen and off he spoke with raw confidence, delivering every sentence as if he was a wizened politician, but beneath it he showed a deep naivety and fear.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Kaspar is visited by a professor seeking to test his logical thinking skills and is asked to solve a classic riddle: You encounter a man in the road, and he is either from a village that always lies or a village that always tells the truth. You can ask him one question to figure out where he is from. The professor insists the answer involves a convoluted double negative, but Kaspar suggests there is a simpler solution — ask him if he is a tree frog. If he is a liar, he will say he is a tree frog. Of course, the professor refuses to accept this as a “logical” solution. But Kaspar Hauser holds a mirror to society. He shows the absurdities of formality and class for what they are.
Shooting the scene, however, Bruno himself was lost. He believed he had flubbed his lines and that the actor playing the professor was really berating him, driving up the scene’s tension as he shuffles in his seat and the vulnerability bubbles to the surface.
Bruno was frequently skeptical of Herzog’s motivations and deeply insecure in front of the camera. Years later, Bruno would deride Herzog as a rich celebrity who had used and dismissed him, saying in the documentary Bruno S. – Estrangement is Death (2003) that “Werner Herzog, [actress] Eva Mattes, they belong to the better off people who have everything the other could only dream of.”
Despite their falling out, Herzog always claimed he took a tender approach to Bruno and aimed to create a working environment that was accommodating and supportive. In Paul Cronin’s book length interview, Herzog on Herzog, he detailed how he would care for his lead actor and ensure the entire set was tailored to his comfort:
“Without the mutual trust quickly established between the two of us I would not have stood a chance. I would hold his wrist a lot; with Bruno there was always physical contact. Not his hand, just his wrist, as if I had my fingers on his pulse. He kind of liked that. Sometimes he was very unruly and would rant about the injustices of the world. All I could do when this happened was to stop everyone and allow him to say whatever he wanted to say. I got quite angry with a sound man who, after an hour of this ranting, opened a magazine and started to read. I said to him, ‘You are being paid now to listen to Bruno. All of us will listen to him.’ After a few minutes of this Bruno would see that everyone was looking at him, and would say, ‘Der Bruno has talked too much. Let’s do some good work now.’ I constantly said to him, ‘Bruno, when you need to talk and speak about yourself, do it. It is not an interruption for us. It is very much a part of what we are doing here. Not everything needs to be recorded on film.’”
Their second, and final, collaboration would turn into one of the greatest films of Herzog’s career. Stroszek was born from a fluke; Herzog had planned to make an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck and wanted to cast Bruno in the title role. In the eventual film adaptation, released in 1979, Woyzeck is a put upon soldier constantly humiliated and debased by the military, doctors and his wife until one day he finally snaps and kills her in a fit of derangement. (Woyzeck is also playing at the Brattle, screening alongside Kaspar Hauser on Sunday 9/19). The idea to cast Bruno in the role makes sense given the characters he played for Herzog, but perhaps reveals how he saw Bruno: as a pathetic, submissive figure abused by all around him.
As the film got further into pre-production, Herzog realized Bruno was wrong for the part and he needed Klaus Kinski. The final decision makes some sense — while it is odd to imagine Kinski as such a weak personality, it’s harder to imagine Bruno being capable of the violence the film’s final act requires. The recasting devastated Bruno, who had already secured time off work for the shoot, and Herzog, feeling “ashamed and embarrassed” immediately said they would make a different film instead and it would even have a similar title — hence, Stroszek. The script was written in under a week and the story would become a kind of fictionalized biography, taking its cues from Bruno’s real life, even naming the character after him.
The character of Bruno Stroszek is, more or less, Bruno Schleinstein. He speaks in the first person, performs songs that he wrote himself, and makes grand declarative statements and philosophical musings. He can be arrogant and assertive, but also fearful and reserved. Ultimately, he struggles to find a place in the world where he belongs.
The film opens as Stroszek is released from prison in Berlin on the condition he stays sober, and he immediately heads to a pub. There he meets Eva (Eva Mattes), a local sex worker whom he lets stay with him in his apartment, which has been kept for him by his elderly neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). Stroszek attempts to return to his life, playing piano in his apartment and performing songs on his accordion in the streets, but after Eva’s pimps break into the apartment and attack them, smashing Bruno’s accordion in the process, they agree to go to America with Scheitz and start a new life in rural Wisconsin.
While The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser bears many of Herzog’s trademarks as a director, via absurd intrusions and mentally ill inmates, Stroszek feels the most like an emotionally-driven outlier in a filmography rife with madness and alien observation. The scenes in Berlin are stylistically the closest to Fassbinder that Herzog ever got, with the grim street life of 1970s West Germany feeling more in line with the social concerns of his New German Cinema contemporaries. Though shy about politics, the nature of the immigrant story forces Stroszek into a position on national identity that typically eludes Herzog’s work — even his films about European conquest rarely deal with nationalism, preferring instead to focus on singular madmen on quixotic endeavors who buck fealty to country. Stroszek itself is an individualist story, but contrasted against a desolate Midwest landscape occupied by cowboys and predatory bankers it’s impossible to deny Bruno’s particular Germanness — even as he was fish out of water in his own country, the alienation of America is even colder.
Herzog’s vision of America is as an awe-inspiring nation with both cold darkness under the surface and absurdity on its face. Early scenes in New York show Bruno, Eva, and Scheitz in love with the city and soaking in the beautiful magic-hour photography of the countryside as they drive towards Wisconsin. The bulk of the film’s second half was shot in and near the town of Plainfield, a small community with a curious proclivity for producing mass murderers, including Ed Gein, a fact known to Herzog at the time that he said spoke to the grim mood he wanted to convey. The depictions of Americans are almost caricatures, either suits with ulterior motives or burly cowboy types taking style cues from John Wayne. The film was actually Herzog’s second to be shot in the United States, following his documentary about cattle auctioneers, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976). Enraptured by the “extreme language” of the auctioneers, Herzog would cast two of them in cameo roles in Stroszek, adding one more surreal sideshow element to Bruno’s odyssey.
Herzog’s tender adoration for Bruno is felt so dearly. Stroszek is perhaps the most humanist film he has made, with scenes driven by a raw anguish that could only have come from the wounded heart of its leading man. In one late moment, Bruno sits calmly and shares with Eva the details of his real childhood imprisonment in an improvised take that Herzog included in the final cut.
It’s hard to write about Stroszek and the career of Bruno S. without touching on the film’s ending, in which, having lost all, he finds himself in the amusements section of an off season ski resort, filled with coin operated attractions featuring small animals in glass boxes performing tricks. A rabbit rides a fire truck, a duck plays a bass drum and two chickens appear — one that dances and one that plays the piano. Over a roaring harmonica score the animals perform a small symphony. Herzog, who famously declared chickens to be obscenely stupid creatures, gives the poultry the starring role in this sequence, and it is this image that has come to represent the film. But why? Is this who Der Bruno is? Just a dancing piano-playing chicken — a creature who moves through life as a subservient, lost and oblivious to the world around him? It can’t be. Stroszek shows us an overwhelmingly tragic human being whose every statement is rife with powerful emotion. But perhaps this is how the rest of the world sees him, how he is reduced and subjugated to the role of coin-operated man and how that hostility can destroy a person’s soul.
Bruno S. died in 2010 of heart failure at age 78. Though they had long been estranged, Herzog called him the best actor he had ever worked with: “There is no one who comes close to him,” he said. “I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him.” But it hardly needs to be said aloud; Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek are proof in the flesh.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
dir. Werner Herzog
dir. Werner Herzog
Both films screening at the Brattle Theatre as part of their ongoing series “The Fictions of Werner Herzog”
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser screens Sunday, 9/19, 6:00pm
Stroszeck screens Wednesday, 9/22, 5:15pm & 8:00pm
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