Stroszek, Werner Herzog's 1977 tragic comedy, concerns the lives of three friends: Bruno, a street musician; Eva, a prostitute; and Scheitz, an older retiree. It begins with Bruno's release from prison in Berlin and an attack from Eva's pimps and tracks the friends as they try to make a new life in Wisconsin, where Bruno becomes employed with Scheitz's nephew Clayton. While Scheitz is an old eccentric, Bruno comes across as innocent (in both the usual sense and the more archaic meaning of mentally ill), if we can ignore the inherent ridiculousness of using that term to describe an alcoholic who has lived through prison and learned how to get by as an accordion player in Berlin's grimy squares. Eva has a more average outlook, but as the bills in Wisconsin pile up she becomes increasingly apathetic and depressed, spending many of her shots eating on the bed or couch or being forced back into her old job as prostitute. The hopeless defiance with which she thrusts one of their last payments at the man who collects their bills contrasts harshly with the happiness we saw when she got the money for the trip to America. Both of these sums come from what seems like the only way the impoverished friends can make any upward strides against their debts: Eva's prostitution. Bruno certainly never appears to make much money at all, and it's possible Clayton is underpaying him.
In Stroszek, Herzog explores the boundary between truth and fiction in an unusual way. While he implements many documentary-like techniques, such as a lack of saturation, a quick and low-budget shooting, a cast of non-professional actors who often play as themselves, an impartial, almost indifferent gaze, and a tarnished, peeling-paint realism, the plot is bizarre and dream-like and the characters, especially Bruno and Scheitz, bring with them an atmosphere of unpredictability. This juxtaposition lets a bleak film double as a very watchable comedy. In one scene, Scheitz walks along a grain-surrounded fence, testing the wood with a voltmeter. He comes across two American hunters and asks, in German, whether he can test a strange theory about “animal magnetism”. The bemusement we share with the hunters, who react naturally (and were probably not actors), is what makes the scene so humorous. They play along, not understanding German, but we know that even if they did it wouldn't matter since Scheitz's theory is so incomprehensible.
A Farm in Wisconsin. Licensed under CC at wikimedia commons.
When viewing Stroszek as a documentary, we naturally search for a slant. The most obvious one is its indictment, perhaps not of capitalism itself, but of its tendency to build and reinforce income and power inequalities. To build upon this premise, Herzog inverts many of the promises of America and wealth. The friends' tragic arc is a sad shadow of the American dream, and the predatory tendencies brought about by power are revealed through pimps' harassment, through an immigration office's confiscation of Bruno's bird (which occurs off-screen and gives Bruno yet another darkly funny line), and through the gleam from the gold rings of a painfully apologetic “man from the bank”. The auction, a staple representative of citizens' purchasing power, acts as a ruthless reminder of these cruelties. Rather than the fine art or antiques auctions so often portrayed in film, this one is for the humble prefabricated house on which Bruno and Scheitz have been unable to keep up with the payments. As the auction ends, Bruno walks aimlessly backwards with his usual inscrutable expression, homeless, while dogs cross the scene looking for food or attention. It's winter still and everything is a dull brown smeared with white and the trees are leafless against the drab sky.