Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032

Werner Herzog should be thought of as a kind of seer, perhaps even something of a mystic. Only then does the nonsense begin to make sense in his films. Those films are a peculiar combination of an impulse both to comprehend all of life and at the same time to...

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Werner Herzog should be thought of as a kind of seer, perhaps even something of a mystic. Only then does the nonsense begin to make sense in his films. Those films are a peculiar combination of an impulse both to comprehend all of life and at the same time to respect its incomprehensibility. The result is films that are like parables. The only way Herzog can embrace life fully enough is to deal with it in a symbolic and anagogical way instead of a literal one. Rather than the explanation of a particular situation, his films are revelations of the general. The colony of dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small or the African desert in Fata Morgana are microcosms of all creation. They suggest everything while specifying little. In almost all of Herzog's films to date, in fact, the characters behave, like figures of myth, by the laws of the imagination alone. They behave only in accordance with the laws of Herzog's own imagination, which is an all-consuming, singular and very private one….

[By contrast, Stroszek] seems the most naturalistic [film] he has made…. As is suggested by the use of the actors' names for the characters they play … Herzog intends his film to seem, ambiguously, a document as well as a fable. Yet at the same time, Stroszek is only a document in the same peculiar sense that Fata Morgana is. At heart it is still predominantly an attempt to mystify and mythologize all life. It's an attempt once again to comprehend the incomprehensible.

As in past films, so here, Herzog attempts almost physically to comprehend as much of human civilization as possible. He does this by seeing in Stroszek's immigration a continuity between European and American cultures. Soon after Stroszek's arrival, the parallel between the Germany he has left behind and the America to which he has come is implied by an incident he witnesses. Two farmers engaged in a legal battle over a strip of land ride on their enormous diesel tractors armed with rifles and stare provokingly at each other across the disputed ground. Thus does rural Wisconsin become, like the institution in Even Dwarfs, the microcosm of a nation—an East and West Germany in miniature.

Even before Stroszek leaves Germany the parallel with America and the impossibility of escaping his problems there seems inevitable. From his cellmate in the opening scenes to the pimps who terrorize him, half the people Stroszek knows in Germany wear Western hats and cowboy clothes like the Wisconsinites (indeed, like Stroszek himself, after he has been in America a time). In Germany Stroszek goes to a doctor who once treated him and now consoles him in his new troubles with a tour of the hospital nursery. Holding up a tiny, wrinkled baby the doctors asks philosophically who can tell which such infant will be a great man. And in America Herr Scheitz, who looks almost like the infant, begins to have delusions that he is a great man, the discoverer of animal magnetism. So does the immigration to America become, in effect, the passage from infancy to senility—life's pilgrimage not to the promised land, but to ruination.

At times Stroszek's fate is, like the desert life portrayed in Fata Morgana, accompanied by a kind of solemn rhetoric. At one point, for instance, Stroszek tries to explain to Eva his feeling that America does to the spirit what Germany does to the physical and political man. Were we to take it seriously, such an insight into his own situation would at the least be out of character for poor Stroszek. But I don't believe Herzog intends us to take it seriously any more than we did the voice-over narrative in Fata Morgana…. In his film, both story and dialogue are similar gestures—an attempt to get as close as possible to what can never be entered or known directly. Like the over-arching symbolism of Herzog's plots, any rhetorical wisdom those plots may contain is only an effort to surround a truth which exists, by its nature, in silence.

In Land of Silence and of Darkness …, in fact, Herzog made a documentary about a woman both blind and deaf. The fascination she had for him was not so much her extraordinary ability to understand the world outside herself, but rather our inability to enter and understand the world inside her. In Stroszek Herzog again deals with a character who lives, increasingly, after he immigrates to America, in a land of silence and of darkness. What really binds together the episodes of Stroszek's life more than anything else is the failure of language. The more different ways of talking about human experience are introduced into the film, the less sense language makes to Stroszek. The immigration to America makes us especially aware of this since Stroszek speaks no English. When he, Eva and Herr Scheitz arrive in Wisconsin, Scheitz's cousin greets them with a sign reading "Willkommen" on one side and "Welcome" on the other. But Stroszek's experiences in Germany don't translate in such easy, hospitable ways. (pp. 624-25)

In Germany Stroszek earns money as a street singer, and at one point we hear a performance he gives where he narrates and interpolates each verse of his song before he sings it. This anticipates beautifully the duality of his experience in Europe and America and the double failure of language for him. Ultimately the myth Herzog would create here is a very pessimistic one. All the efforts to comprehend the incomprehensible leave us, in the end, with a pretty empty universe. At the end of this film, after he has lost his home, his Eva and his friend Scheitz, Stroszek leaves a truck he has stolen circling by itself in a parking lot and goes off to commit suicide. That driverless truck going round and round is an image Herzog has employed before. It's a horrific image of the attempt to encompass somehow a void which we cannot know in any other way. (p. 625)

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., "The Failure of Language," in Commonweal (copyright © 1977 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CIV, No. 20, September 30, 1977, pp. 624-25.

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