- Woyzeck (1979) film review: Starring frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski as the disturbed/oppressed titular character, this lesser-known and less well-regarded Werner Herzog effort is superior to the vast majority of so-called “Hollywood masterpieces.”
Woyzeck film review: Werner Herzog displays ‘flashes of utter brilliance’ is lesser effort that is still superior to Hollywood fare
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 1979 Woyzeck film adaptation – from an unfinished play by Georg Büchner [1813–1837] – that stars the filmmaker’s friend and bane Klaus Kinski in the third of five features they worked on together.
Shot in Czechoslovakia in just 18 days, and less than a week after Herzog had wrapped Nosferatu the Vampyre, Woyzeck is not a great film. Even so, here and there it does offer great moments.
Part of the reason it fails to reach true greatness is that the story’s stage roots are too obvious, especially in the screenwriter-director’s use of overtly philosophical monologues and the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere.
‘Riveting’ Klaus Kinski
Woyzeck tells a simple tale: Early 19th-century German soldier Friedrich Johann Franz Woyzeck (Klaus Kinski) slowly goes mad and kills his faithless lover Marie (Eva Mattes), possibly an ex-prostitute, who is having a sexual relationship with another military man (Josef Bierbichler).
The simplicity of the story isn’t truly important; it’s how Herzog approaches the narrative 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 film’s most commented upon scene has Woyzeck murdering his lover near a pond. It’s done in slow motion and to music, being 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 in the murder scene.
No Merchant-Ivory ‘costume drama’
What sets Woyzeck apart from the opulent but stale Ismail Merchant/James Ivory-type productions is that Woyzeck should be a “costume drama” but isn’t.
Of course, Woyzeck has period costumes, but instead of relying on magnificent landscapes and marvelous old buildings, the film’s atmosphere is focused on grimy streets. It features handheld camera shots of dark, dingy little apartments – not of clean, gilded mansions.
Its characters are life-sized quivering little people, not semi-mythic, towering heroic creatures. As he did in Aguirre: The Wrath of God and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog shows the viewer the world as it was, not as how it should have been. Woyzeck does not rhapsodize on the makings of man.
And if David Lean was the master of film epopee, then Werner Herzog is the master of film lyricism.
The latter never shows gratuitous close-ups, or quick-cutting conversational shots of faces as they speak. In fact, there is only one major subjective shot in Woyzeck: That’s when the title character stumbles upon Marie dancing with her lover.
Other than that, Woyzeck’s torments are witnessed with the detachment of a scientist and his lab rat, much as the character is viewed by his army captain (Wolfgang Reichmann) and military doctor (Willy Semmelrogge).
No crazed ‘Übermensch’
Despite Woyzeck’s murderous end, Klaus Kinski, for once, is not some crazed Übermensch but everyone else’s bullied victim.
The captain belittles his subordinate as a peasant with low morals, even as the latter wields a straight-edge razor to shave him. The doctor tests out all sorts of drugs and social theories on him, to the point of having him eat peas for six months and try to piss on command. Marie cheats on him, and he even gets beaten up by her lover.
In a sense, one might say that Kinski’s characterization is over the top, but the actor’s unique body language, face, and – especially – blue eyes allow him to get away with things lesser actors could not.
In other words, Kinski was a sort of Jack Nicholson, but better.
Political commentary & modernism
With the aforementioned set-up, and the castration of his manhood and dignity, Woyzeck 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.)
The original play by Georg Büchner, who died of typhus at 23, was itself reputedly based on the actual murder of a military man’s lover in the 1820s. Büchner and his play had been all but forgotten when the author was rediscovered once modernism arose in the early part of the 20th century.
Woyzeck, the play, 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 opening 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.)
Woyzeck film DVD
Presented in German with English subtitles, Woyzeck is part of Anchor Bay’s Herzog-Kinski box set. The colors are muted and the print is a bit faded, but Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s cinematography is sterling, especially in his use of shade, and the display of rustic, deep-green, gold, and brown hues in the forest scenes.
Critics usually dismiss Woyzeck for its visuals; i.e., the darkness and static camera shots, which they claim are part of the film’s staginess. They’re wrong. Not that Woyzeck isn’t stagy, but that Herzog’s approach is per se a bad thing.
In all, the visuals work splendidly in evoking mood. The actual “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 when it comes to this excellent little film, with the “little” being used in all its best connotations.
In addition, the score by “Fidelquartett Telc” [strings heard during the opening credits and “live” music during the film; it’s unclear who did the actual recording] is apt, for it’s not grand and baroque but amateurish and off-key. The lone high-quality musical exception in Woyzeck is Antonio Vivaldi’s guitar concerto at the end, as detectives praise the beauty of the murder scene right next to the pond where the film opened.
‘Lesser’ Herzog vs. ‘Hollywood masterpieces’
To a great extent, whether Woyzeck is seen as a dark comedy or a sinister drama depends on the viewer’s mood.
Like all the Werner Herzog-Klaus 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.
Ultimately, Werner Herzog deserves all the praise he can get, even for his “lesser” works. After all, a lesser Herzog will beat 99 out of 100 so-called “Hollywood masterpieces.” When failures can still get these kinds of odds, you’re playing with house money; that’s when it’s okay to think small to reach deeply.
Director: Werner Herzog.
Screenplay: Werner Herzog.
From Georg Büchner’s play completed posthumously and first staged in 1913.
Cast: Klaus Kinski. Eva Mattes. Wolfgang Reichmann. Willy Semmelrogge. Josef Bierbichler.
“Woyzeck (1979): Minor Herzog Superior to ‘Hollywood Masterpieces’” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Woyzeck (1979): Minor Herzog Superior to ‘Hollywood Masterpieces’” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Woyzeck Film (1979) Review” endnotes
As mentioned in the Woyzeck film review text, Werner Herzog’s 1979 feature is based on a play by Georg Büchner, who was the brother of scientific materialism philosopher Ludwig Büchner (1824–1899).
One of Germany’s top literary awards is the Georg Büchner Prize; past recipients include Martin Kessel, Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, George Tabori, and Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
Eva Mattes and Klaus Kinski Woyzeck film images: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion.
“Woyzeck (1979): Minor Herzog Superior to ‘Hollywood Masterpieces’” last updated in September 2021.