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'Woyzeck': Werner Herzog Displays 'Flashes of Utter Brilliance'

Klaus Kinski in Woyzeck
Woyzeck with Klaus Kinski

Woyzeck by Werner Herzog

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.)

Klaus Kinski in Woyzeck
Klaus Kinski in Woyzeck

Written by Herzog, Woyzeck is an adaptation of an unfinished 1836 play by Georg Büchner (who died of typhus at twenty-three) that is reputedly based on a real murder of a military man's lover. Until the turn of the twentieth century, Büchner and his play were all but forgotten, but the author was rediscovered when Modernism arose in the early part of the last century. Woyzeck was seen as a herald of both Modernism and Absurdism, with its lead character described as a sort of pre-Beckettian creation. Such interpretation is validated right in the first scene following the credits, as the camera, at faster-than-normal speed, shows an officer forcing Woyzeck to do squats and pushups until he drops. Kinski is comical and pathetic at once, as the audience is supposed to both identify with his character and pity him – even when he claims to hear voices urging him to 'Stab! Stab!' (There is some question over whether or not Woyzeck drowns in the river when he goes back to retrieve the knife with which he killed Marie, even though there's absolutely no evidence of this in the film.)

The DVD, part of Anchor Bay's Herzog-Kinski box set, is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The colors are muted, and the print is a bit faded, though Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein's cinematography is sterling, especially his use of shade, and the display of rustic, deep-green, gold, and brown hues in the forest scenes. Fiedelquartett Telc's musical soundtrack is apt, for it's not grand and baroque but amateurish and off key. The lone exception is the Guitar Concerto by Antonio Vivaldi that ends the film, where detectives praise the beauty of the murder scene right next to the pond where the film opened.

The only extras on the disc are a three-minute trailer, filmographies, and a photo gallery. (There is no dubbed track; the film is presented in German with English subtitles.) Given that Woyzeck is one of Herzog's lesser-known works, a film commentary should have been recorded especially considering that on most other Herzog DVDs the director usually provides incisive remarks.

Critics usually dismiss Woyzeck for its visuals – the darkness and static camera shots, which they claim are part of the film's staginess. They're wrong. Not that the film isn't stagy, but that Herzog's approach is per se a bad thing. The visuals all work splendidly in evoking mood. In reality, the “staginess” that prevents Woyzeck from achieving greatness is the overabundance of philosophical monologues from a variety of dimwitted characters. But that's not a major quibble for this excellent little film, with the 'little' being used in all its best connotations.

To a great extent, whether Woyzeck is seen as a dark comedy or a sinister drama depends upon the viewer's mood. Like all the Herzog-Kinski collaborations, the film deals wonderfully with alienation and loneliness: the desire to stay sane under stressful and abnormal circumstances, the inability to cope with frustration, and the (usually unsuccessful) attempts to stave off paranoia when under physical or psychological attack. That so few other films even ponder these questions, however fleetingly, is something to be rued.

On the other hand, Werner Herzog deserves all the praise he can get, even for his 'lesser' films. After all, a lesser Herzog will beat ninety-nine out of a hundred so-called 'masterpieces' from Hollywood. When failures can still get those kinds of odds you're playing with house money, and that's when it's ok to think small to reach deeply.

© Dan Schneider

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

Woyzeck (1979). 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.

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2 Comments to 'Woyzeck': Werner Herzog Displays 'Flashes of Utter Brilliance'

  1. Win Thrall

    This review of Woyzeck is excellent. I wish to see it some how and some where -???

    And I also am eager to see Herzog's Queen of the Desert.

    Have you reviewed it?

    Sign me up,
    Win Thrall

  2. matt

    The 70's were such a great era for film makers. Movies like these really paved the way for the films of today.