Karen Jaehne

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000

Stroszek is neatly divided between the old world of Berlin shadows and the new world, lying under one mammoth shadow. When Bruno S. is released from prison, he seems to be just rounding the track of another relay race. 'It all moves in circles,' he shouts, above the mild admonitions of a functionary at the prison. Bruno's cry has the prophetic tone of all his proclamatory acting in Herzog's films. The movement within the film then fulfils Bruno's worst fears: from prison to freedom and back again has until now been the pattern, and when Berlin's working class district, Kreuzberg, proves to be a static ghetto of static violence, Bruno tries to widen the circle to extend to the shores of American freedom. The circle then becomes a motif of absurdity, which can be traced from the clawing dance of the glassy-eyed chicken to the machine that carries Bruno in circles even after his death. This feigned movement is an image of America running in circles, where the potential for violence is brilliantly depicted by two farmers on their tractors, shotguns in hand, ploughing a disputed piece of land. (p. 101)

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Herzog projects his obsession with Fate in this film into an American darkness that will eventually absorb Bruno. In Berlin, Bruno lives in a sort of pact of destiny with the darkness and seems to have no great expectations….

Bruno is the kind of hero whose very alienation would be his saving grace, if he were not to get mixed up with Woman. In a role-reversal, Eva tries to 'take him away from all this'—the brutality that her own invasion of his world has caused—and they emigrate to Railroad Flats (Wisconsin, Plainsfield), where railroads have been replaced by trucks. Eva gets a job serving in a truck-stop and quickly adapts to easy-going American ways, trying to beat the payments on their colour TV and mobile home as a part-time hooker. Herr Scheitz develops a marvellous theory about measuring animal magnetism in people with a geiger counter. The Americans he encounters don't understand him, of course, and if they did, they wouldn't believe it. Nothing changes in Bruno's destiny; there is no solace in transition, for he only moves from his private corner of darkness to an entire land plunged into darkness. (p. 102)

Bruno and Herr Scheitz plunge into the American Way of Life—as they understand it—and rob a cash register of $22, spending it across the street on a cold turkey. This subtle bit of Americana escapes some German audiences, but is a hilarious symbolic variation on Herzog's obsession with fowl and simultaneously incorporates what it means to break a habit 'cold turkey'. Bruno's habit has been to bend with the wind, literally depicted in Berlin when he bent over his piano, forced by Eva's former pimps to wear a bell on his head. The pimps' violence had also been linked to the influence of American standards, in a cut to the street where they stand next to a shiny American car. The contradictions of the American Dream must inevitably be resolved by prostitution: to achieve the goal of 'something for nothing', one has to sell oneself or someone else. But Herzog's America is not full of prostitutes and criminals typical of New German Cinema films. Indeed, his Americans have no excess of dignity, and their casual attitude is a veil for more insidious purposes. Even the act of prostitution is draped in seduction when we are shown how it all operates at the truck stop…. It seems that in America money is slipped back and forth, under the guise of friendliness. Perhaps the sleaziest scene in Herzog's film is that with the debt collector from the bank, a scene worthy of Altman, as the slick young man blushes at the sight of Eva's pile of bills: 'We usually only accept credit cards.' He is thoroughly convincing.

It is the wheeling and dealing that separates Bruno and Eva, for she can do it in an offhand manner, as was evident back in Berlin's back-alley, while Bruno has nothing to sell. Increasingly, he is equated with the American Indian, first through his fellow worker and ultimately when he seeks refuge and dies on the Indian Reservation in North Carolina. The immigrant and invader is embodied in Eva and her decision to migrate with the truckers on their long-distance runs to Canada. Bruno takes off in the other direction and drives until he comes to a Reservation where the Indians have turned to exploitation, selling their very ethnicity, and where a chicken and rabbits dance and make music for a coin stuck in their cage. Here Bruno takes his last free ride in America.

This American attitude towards life is captured in the way Herzog uses animals as a motif, parallel to human development. 'What kind of land is it that takes Bruno's [pet bird] Beo away from him?' This line … expresses Bruno's first loss in America. The customs authorities can no more appreciate Bruno's attachment to Beo than he can understand their reasons for depriving him of his pet. The same gap of understanding provides comic relief when Herr Scheitz attempts to measure the animal magnetism of two dead deer and explain his ideas to two indifferent hunters. The life of animals is a measure of the general indifference to life which Bruno meets in Railroad Flats, where his boss is obsessed with a recent murder. Where the Cherokees parade as Indians, animals parade as machines in a sensational attraction that is surely the most absurd element in Herzog's work: the last sequence cuts back and forth from the glassy eye of the chicken dancing in circles to the burned-out tow-truck running down in circles and Bruno caught dead on the circling ski-lift, in a fulfilment of his prediction, "It all moves in circles." (p. 102)

Karen Jaehne, "The American Fiend," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 101-02.

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