Dir.: Werner Herzog
Scr.: Werner Herzog; from a play by Georg Büchner
Cast: Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes, Wolfgang Reichmann, Willy Semmelrogge, Josef Bierbichler, Paul Burian, Volker Prechtel
Klaus Kinski in Woyzeck
One of the signs of a great artist is that even when not at the top of his game he is still capable of flashes of utter brilliance. Such is the case in Werner Herzog's Woyzeck (1979), starring his friend and bane Klaus Kinski in the third of five films made by the director-actor team.
Woyzeck is not a great film, but here and there it offers great moments. Part of the reason it fails to reach true greatness is that the story's stage roots are too obvious, especially in Herzog's use of overtly philosophical monologues and the film's claustrophobic atmosphere. (Woyzeck was shot in Czechoslovakia in just eighteen days, and less than a week after the director had wrapped Nosferatu, Phantom of the Night.)
The tale is a simple one: early 19th-century German soldier Friedrich Johann Franz Woyzeck (Kinski) slowly goes mad and kills his faithless lover Marie (Eva Mattes), possibly an ex-prostitute, who is having sex with another military man. (Many critics have claimed that the woman is Woyzeck's wife, but as they live apart and she does not bear his name there is no evidence for this assertion.)
The simplicity of the tale isn't truly important; it is how Herzog approaches the story that lifts it from possible banality to near greatness. Kinski's performance, as usual, is riveting – even if nowhere near as mesmerizing as his star turn in Aguirre: The Wrath of God.
The most commented upon scene is the one in which Woyzeck murders his lover near a pond. It is done in slow motion and to music, being quite remarkable when Kinski's character briefly realizes he has gone over the edge. In an even more effective moment, Woyzeck's doctor tosses a cat out of a second-story window; Woyzeck catches it, then quivers as the cat shits on him. It's the kind of odd thing that happens in reality but rarely in films – and Kinski's reaction is every bit as wonderful as the murder scene.
What sets Woyzeck apart from the opulent but stale Merchant/Ivory-type productions is that Herzog's film should be a costume drama but it is not. Of course, there are period costumes, but instead of relying on magnificent landscapes and marvelous old buildings, the film's atmosphere is focused on grimy streets; there are handheld camera shots of dark, dingy little apartments, not of clean, gilded mansions. The film's characters are life-sized quivering little people, not semi-mythic towering heroic creatures. Herzog, as he did in Aguirre and in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, shows the viewer the world as it was, not as how it should have been.
Woyzeck, in fact, is not a film that rhapsodizes on the makings of man. If David Lean was the master of film epopee, then Herzog is the master of film lyricism. Herzog never has gratuitous close-ups, or quick-cutting conversational shots of faces as they speak. There is only one major subjective shot in the film, when Woyzeck stumbles upon Marie dancing with her lover. Other than that, his torments are witnessed with the detachment of a scientist and his lab rat, much as Woyzeck is viewed by his Captain and doctor.
Kinski, for once, despite his character's murderous end, is not some crazed übermensch, but everyone else's bullied victim. His Army Captain (Wolfgang Reichmann) belittles him as a peasant with low morals, even as Woyzeck wields a straight edge razor to shave him. His military doctor (Willy Semmelrogge) tests out all sorts of drugs and social theories on him, to the point of eating peas for six months and trying to piss on command. And his lover cheats on him. He even gets beaten up by Marie's lover (Josef Bierbichler).
In a sense, one might say that the characterization is over the top, but Kinski's unique body language, face, and – especially – blue eyes allows him to get away with things lesser actors could not. In other words, Kinski was a sort of Jack Nicholson, but better.
With the aforementioned setup, and the castration of Woyzeck's manhood and dignity, he sees no way out of his life save murder. His lone act of volition is a criminal one, so that he can never become the person he says he would like to be. That he has been beset upon by a society that apparently rewards those who abuse others is a great example of a political message being woven into a film that few have ever viewed as political. (As opposed to the barren, graceless messages found in today's politically correct works.)