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 almost on a whim in just four days, a guilt-driven vehicle written specifically for street-musician-turned-actor Bruno S. after Herzog promised the lead in Woyzeck to his longtime collaborator Klaus Kinski. Bruno had previously starred as the lead in Herzog’s Every Man For Himself And God Against All, a semi-fictionalized biopic on the life of Kasper Hauser, in 1974. Stroszek would be Bruno’s own biopic of sorts. Indeed, 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 more punitive and horrific than the last; quite 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 – Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn. For money, he drove a forklift at a steel factory. For play, he sang 18th/19th-century 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 maintain anonymity; his ongoing use of it in adulthood might signify the importance of past traumas in shaping who he was.)

Many viewers in the United States probably saw Stroszek as a German’s cynical darkly-negative view of working-class America, mocking its truck stops and trailer parks. But contemporary paratexts for the film, especially Herzog’s commentary for the 2001 DVD release, paint quite a different picture of his feelings towards Midwesterners, whom he called “genuine, with no bullshit” and the exact opposite of New York and Los Angeles snark. 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 capitalist 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; four years later, in 1980, she starred in Helma Sanders-Brahms’ feminist masterwork Germany, Pale Mother. 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 And God Against All. The two German pimps from the film’s first half exude capitalist darkness, negotiating their 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 congenial on-set. The technical crew hated the film, hated the script, hated Bruno, hated Scheitz. They also hated the ending and refused to film it, so Herzog did most of that alone, or maybe with second-unit cameraman Ed Lachman, who seemed to be the only crew person having a good time. His contributions to the work were considerable, particularly his ability to improvise believable American truck-stop dialogue on the fly for unexpected “actors” they asked to participate.

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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 cicles, “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.” 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 these 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