‘Woyzeck’: Even if not in top form, Werner Herzog displays ‘flashes of utter brilliance’
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 18 days, and less than a week after the director had wrapped Nosferatu the Vampyre.)
Deceptively simple storyline
The tale is a simple one: 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 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 Werner 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.
No Merchant Ivory period film
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.
In Woyzeck, characters are life-sized quivering little people, not semi-mythic, towering heroic creatures. Herzog, as he did in Aguirre: The Wrath of God and in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, shows the viewer the world as it was, not as how it should have been.
‘Master of film lyricism’
The film, in fact, does not rhapsodize on the makings of man. 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.
There is only one major subjective shot in Woyzeck: when the title character stumbles upon Marie dancing with her lover (Josef Bierbichler). Other than that, his torments are witnessed with the detachment of a scientist and his lab rat, much as Woyzeck is viewed by his army captain (Wolfgang Reichmann) and military doctor (Willy Semmelrogge).
Klaus Kinski: No crazed ‘Übermensch’
Klaus Kinski, for once, despite his character’s murderous end, is not some crazed Übermensch, but everyone else’s bullied victim. The captain belittles him as a peasant with low morals, even as Woyzeck wields a straight-edge razor to shave him. His doctor 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. Marie cheats on him, and he even gets beaten up by her lover.
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.
Political commentary & modernism
With the aforementioned set-up, 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.)
Written by Werner Herzog, Woyzeck is an adaptation of an unfinished play by Georg Büchner (who died of typhus at 23) – itself reputedly based on a real murder of a military man’s lover. Until the turn of the 20th 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.)
Presented in German with English subtitles, Woyzeck is part of Anchor Bay’s Werner Herzog-Klaus Kinski box set. The colors are muted and the print is a bit faded, but 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.
Fidelquartett Telc’s musical soundtrack is apt, for it’s not grand and baroque but amateurish and off-key. The lone exception is Antonio Vivaldi’s guitar concerto by that ends the film as detectives praise the beauty of the murder scene right next to the pond where the film opened.
Given that Woyzeck is one of Herzog’s lesser-known works, a commentary soundtrack 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 dim-witted characters. But that’s not a major quibble for this excellent little film, with the “little” being used in all its best connotations.
‘Lesser’ Werner Herzog vs. ‘Hollywood masterpieces’
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 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.
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.
Review text © Dan Schneider. Image captions © Alt Film Guide.
Note: This review of Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text, which can be read in its original form at cosmoetica.com.
The views expressed in the review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
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.
Woyzeck cast info via the IMDb.
Eva Mattes and Klaus Kinski Woyzeck images: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion.
“Woyzeck: Werner Herzog ‘Lesser’ Effort Superior to ‘Hollywood Masterpieces’” last updated in April 2018.