Saturday, September 18, 2010


Ah, Stroszek. The tale of the colorful outsider Bruno Stroszek, portrayed by the colorful outsider Bruno S. Bruno S. deserves his own story, so I won't go into it now (I've included the link to wiki in case any one is interested). It is worth noting, however, that Werner Herzog wrote the movie specifically for Bruno S. in four days. Very impressive to be able to come up with such a tale of sadness and melancholy alienation in such a short amount of time, let alone composing a film that plays so specifically and well to an actor's characteristics. But that was certainly one of Herzog's strengths, i.e. all of his films with Kinski.

Now, back to Stroszek. A tale of loneliness, alienation, and of not belonging. Bruno is our main character. He goes through a series of events compounding his isolation and emphasizing how he is one of those individuals for whom society has no place. We begin as he is being released from prison, the one place where he has felt at home, apparently, because he bids a solemn, mournful goodbye to his cellmates. He clearly does not wish to leave. Nor does he have a wish to adjust or assimilate to his society. The prison official gives him a list of suggestions as to how best to clean himself up so that he may function amongst normal folk - Bruno's reactions are fantastic. He mumbles to himself, talks to himself in the third person, looks around, a smile hovering around his face. He is like a child with ADD, unable to focus on the prison official - and yet you have the sense that he absorbs every word that the official says, only to purposely ignore them (for instance - the official stresses that Bruno must not drink, or he'll wind back up in prison. And of course, the first place that Bruno walks into is a bar - it's an almost deliberate defiance).

Once on the outside, we begin to see what an outsider Bruno really is. His only companions are Eva, a whore who is beaten by her two pimps, who also terrorize Bruno (more on that in a minute), Schietz, a wizened old man with a cousin in Wisconsin, and his bird, Beo. Bruno's alienation begins to be developed. He offers Eva a place to stay, but that simply attracts the trouble of her pimps, one of whom, a monstrous viking type forces Bruno onto his grand piano, making him kneel and wear bells - this is clearly humiliating. Bruno and Eva decide to flee Germany to America with Schietz, who is moving in with his cousin in Wisconsin. In America, Bruno works for Schietz's cousin, a mid-western auto mechanic who has a Native American as his assistant. Eva eventually leaves, fleeing with some trucker who she's been whoring herself too, leaving Bruno to take care of payments on the trailer that they've rented. This trailer is eventually repossessed by the bank. Bruno and Scheitz, who is railing about some sort of 'conspiracy,' go into town to rob the bank. It's closed, so they rob a barber and immediately go across the street to buy groceries. The police enter the store and arrest Scheitz but don't see Bruno. He flees and drives aimlessly through a misty, snowy countryside - perhaps he is looking for Eva, perhaps he is just driving because he has nothing better to do. Eventually he reaches a Native American village that resembles, in a way, a forlorn version of South of the Border, that kitschy sprawl of gift shops, firework stores, and bathrooms on I-95. Here, the movie reaches its conclusion.

The character of Bruno is the focal point of the movie. It doesn't follow him as he grows, develops, or learns from his mistakes, however hopeful we may be that such things happen. Bruno is a loner, but he is not lonely. He has his music, which brings what we can only assume to be joy to him, although he appears to play music (wonderful music, too, haunting in the creepy ways of the carnivale) out of a sense of duty as well. (The music is an interesting aspect of the movie that I wish I could decipher; it has no relation to the plot and yet- Bruno's music, as well as the other music featured in the movie set the tonal mood quite well, something I'll try and discuss below.) Bruno's feelings and general outlook are ambiguous and enigmatic. We never know if he has future goals, desires, or wants his life to proceed in such and such a way. Indeed, it seems as though Bruno doesn't choose to live for the moment consciously - its just that living in the moment is the only perspective or the only way that Bruno can see life. To him, there is only a 'now.' The only time that he tries to discuss a future is when he muses over who will take care of his instruments after he has predeceased them.

It is well established time and time again that Bruno lives in his own world, or at least lives in no-one else's. His desire to remain in prison, for one, is a good example. So too are his experiences in America. He is constantly unable to communicate with anyone and speaks not a word of English. The Americans that he does have contact with are quite odd specimen - Scheitz's cousin, who demonstrates some odd sex dance, and auctioneer who sells off his trailer, rattling away in an English that I could barely understand (a side note - probably the most awesome auctioneer ever though), and a bank representative who repossesses Bruno's trailer, babbling away and making Bruno sign papers - the half-drunk Bruno clearly has no idea what is going on, only suspecting that something is afoot. The only American that he is able to speak with is a traveler at the end of the movie who somehow justifies Bruno's life for him, or puts it into some sort of perspective when he tells Bruno that his [Bruno's] woman left, he lost his house, and has no money, but he doesn't worry. This communication seems to reach Bruno, however slightly, and soothes him, leaving him at no doubt as to what he must do. Perhaps the most tragi-comic scene demonstrating Bruno's growing isolation, and obviously foreshadowing his experiences in America is when after they get through customs, he asks Eva, deadpan, "What kind of country is this Eva, where they confiscate my Beo?"

Herzog's mise en scene is wonderful. For a movie of alienation and lonesomeness, winter is clearly the appropriate season. And of course, the desolate, windswept plains of Wisconsin, barren of snow, and life, and any colors but gray and brown, serve only to heighten the mood. Somehow Herzog has managed to conjure up the sense that one gets when one looks at snow at the side of the road - it is gray, lifeless, contaminated, filled with dirt and various pebbles that don't belong. This is the world that Bruno inhabits, and it is how we see him. Everything is dull, in some sense or another. The time period is perfect, as well. The late '70s cars that look anachronistic and antiqued even as they are up to date, There is no glamour. It is a world of trailers, of rusted out pick ups, of thick coats of paint that cover up much older walls. The truck stop is depressing, the bars are depressing, the grocery store and barbershop are depressing. The only place that ostensibly has some sort of life and cheer to it is the tacky Native American gift shop/chair lift/tourist trap at the end of the movie, and of course that life is only a sad veneer of what is truly there - kitsch, which is shit, and a down trodden looking Native American standing in a full headdress in a parking lot, simply acting as a sandwich man to bring in customers. Yes, this is a movie where the mood is well and admiringly established by the scenery.

The music plays a significant part in this as well - we have Bruno's hauntingly beautiful songs on the glockenspiel and accordion, Schietz's piano playing, some old American songs that seemed to have come from the depression, a harmonica based blues song where the only vocals are a man going "Oh. Eyy. Ohh. Ey," in a manner similar to what you stereotypically think Native American chants sound like, and the music of the kitschy tourist trap, a grating techno-type arcade music...These are not conventional sounds, and they are played to affect us in a certain way - Herzog's method of running fingernails against a blackboard, in a sense.

And I'll close with a brief description of the kitschy tourist trap. It has animals in display cages, that when a quarter or so is deposited, the light comes on, and they jump up to perform their trained task - a rabbit rides a fire engine and blows a whistle, a chicken dances around, another chicken plays piano, and a duck plays drums.

To wit, from the end of the movie - the sheriff: "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." Can't stop the dancing chicken indeed.

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