Stroszek (1977)

dvd-highlow-splsh“It goes in circles.” – Bruno S.

“It is not something that is low class. It is a big thing and you can move it anywhere. For postwar Germans, the mobile home was almost a dream home.” – Werner Herzog

The script for Stroszek was drafted on a whim in just four days, a guilt-driven vehicle written specifically for Bruno S. after Herzog gave his promised lead in Woyzeck to Klaus Kinski. As ridiculous as that casting decision seems now, back then Kinski could pull a crowd, so it made financial sense, even if it was Bruno who really embodied Büchner’s expressionistic fragments. A couple of years before, in 1974, he had starred as the lead in Herzog’s Every Man For Himself And God Against All, a semi-fictionalized biopic about Kasper Hauser. Stroszek would be Bruno’s own biopic of sorts. It is hard to separate the background of Bruno Schleinstein from the backstory of Bruno Stroszek. According to Herzog, Bruno was abused so severely by his mother that he initially lost the capacity to speak at age 3. Abandoned by her, he spent the next 23 years of his life in a cycle of institutions, constantly escaping and being recaptured, each confinement worst than the last. Literally, mental health care administered by Nazis. Herzog first spotted him in a 1970 documentary on West German television on marginalized peoples, Bruno der Schwarze. For money, he drove a forklift at a steel factory. For leisure, he sang old arcane songs in public spaces accompanied by his accordion, xylophone, and bells. (The use of “S.” instead of “Schleinstein” derives from a common German newspaper practice of identifying juvenile delinquents by only their first letter to preserve anonymity.)

New York and L.A. viewers probably saw Stroszek as a German’s cynical dark view of working-class rural America, mocking its truck stops, trailer life, theme parks. But Herzog’s commentary in 2001 paints a different picture of his feelings towards Midwesterners, whom he called “genuine, with no bullshit”. He picked the area around Plainfield, Wisconsin because of the mystique given to the region by filmmaker and friend Errol Morris, who had been working there on a project about serial killer Ed Gein. Having an obsession with American auctioneers (“It is the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism”), Herzog had filmed a documentary in Pennsylvania for German television in 1975, called How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck. The master of ceremonies at that event was Scott McKain, who made a deep and profound impression on Herzog, calling him “a brilliant man, one out of thousands.” His role as the apologetic screw-turning banker in Stroszek is unmatched. Similarly, Herzog’s car had broken down during a trip to meet Morris in Wisconsin, and he was rescued via tow-truck by mechanic Clayton Szalpinski and his assistant Ely Rodriguez. Herzog said he stored them all away in his brain for later. Indeed, the casting remains the best of any of his films. Eva Mattes was the only professional actor, having been in several great Fassbinder movies, like The Bitter Tears of Perta Von Kant, and who would soon do Germany, Pale Mother with Helma Sanders-Brahms, one of the best German films on the war. The acting agency who represented the elderly Clemens Scheitz warned Herzog that he was “not quite right in the head anymore.” His mathematical equations on animal magnetism, which Herzog worked into an improvised scene with Wisconsin deer hunters, made him the perfect choice for Herr Scheitz. With Bruno, he had previously been in Every Man For Himself. The two German pimps from the film’s first half exude capitalist darkness, negotiating ownership rights to Eva’s body. Herzog had seen boxer/actor Norbert Grupe, a.k.a. Wilhelm von Homburg, in an infamous interview on a German broadcast in 1970, calling it the best thing he had ever seen on television. The other pimp actor, Burkhard Driest, was a writer and painter who had once served time for armed robbery when he was about to finish his law exams. The shoot was contentious behind the scenes but not too bad on-set. The biggest disruption was that the technical crew hated the film, hated the script, hated Bruno, hated Scheitz. They also hated the ending and flat-out refused to film it. Herzog did most of that alone, according to him, and with second-unit cameraman Ed Lachman, who seemed to be the only crew person having a good time. Lachman’s contributions to the work were huge, particularly his ability to improvise believable truck-stop dialogue and recruit unexpected strangers on-the-fly as actors.

strosek-1977-werner-herzog-kino-images
Shooting in North Carolina (Kino Images)

Like Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, it begins with a prison release. And like Franz Biberkopf, Bruno is forever imprisoned: through the barred fingers he flashes in front of his face periodically, to the similar wooden schematic he builds for Eva to explain his interior self; the latter exposition shows Bruno taking off on an improvised autobiographical tangent, demonstrating how he was forced to hold urinated bed sheets over his head for hours in the rain after institutional beatings. But there is no exit, they are always shutting doors on Der Bruno, trapping him in a foreign landscape of rubber toy tomahawks and brainwashed barnyard animals. The pick-up circles, the lift circles, “Is This Really Me?” with his beloved mynah bird now a frozen turkey in this Appalachian abyss. “Look into the eyes of a chicken and you will see real stupidity,” Herzog has said. “It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world.”

As his two film performances drifted into the past, Bruno S. continued making music and painting until his death in 2013, still living in the same Berlin apartment seen in Stroszek. When asked by the New York Times in 2008 about his movie star days, he answered, in typical third-person: “Everybody threw him away.” That may be, but a new generation of outsider artists, inspired by his genuineness, his brokenness, his humanity, would come to champion him as a beacon of authenticity in bullshit times.

Bruno S. is a man to me
You’re just some dude with a stilted attitude
That you learned from TV

— “Color Bars” Elliott Smith