Richard Combs

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912

Herzog has perhaps been assumed (not least by Herzog himself) to be such an original that he doesn't need to be referred to any tradition. And it may be perverse proof of that to find both Nosferatu and Woyzeck awkwardly digesting their given material, and Herzog with more determination than...

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Herzog has perhaps been assumed (not least by Herzog himself) to be such an original that he doesn't need to be referred to any tradition. And it may be perverse proof of that to find both Nosferatu and Woyzeck awkwardly digesting their given material, and Herzog with more determination than conviction adapting himself to alien dramatic traditions (in what might be seen as an attempt, ironically, to find himself a specifically Germanic home). Whether or not, by switching to adaptations, Herzog has exhausted his 'originality' is another question, but it was probably only a matter of time before this dauntless conquistador should run out of new territories to explore, new landscapes in which to set man (the ridiculous) before nature (the sublime). Herzog, arguably, was already heading up a dead end with Stroszek, in which the child of nature suffers the familiar indignities of the road movie hero. [Nosferatu and Woyzeck] have at least restored the cosmic level to his irony, which never bothered to suggest that such inspired fools as Aguirre, Woodcarver Steiner or Kaspar Hauser should be pitied for their social maladjustment.

That the old Herzog is alive and well might be assumed from the provisional way he has treated his pre-existing texts. It hardly seems relevant to consider whether the films are successful adaptations—the texts are simply manmade landscapes which Herzog rifles for his favourite manmade contradictions: between social roles and transcendental aspirations; between life's 'little' deaths and a profounder death-wish that amounts to life everlasting; between prescribed circles and some limitless trajectory. Herzog's implicit assertion here that he belongs to certain traditions (Murnau and expressionism; Büchner and the first tragedy of common man) might be construed as an attempt to run for cover—rather in the way his short film La Soufrière, having failed to show nature cataclysmically cancelling man, makes do with comments on the social disgrace of the people who live on the side of a volcano. But far from becoming 'home' to him, the texts seem to be locations as exotic as the Amazon jungle or the African desert, substitutes for a new physical direction; and if not entirely satisfactory as such, they do allow some room for manoeuvre.

One can assume that Herzog is respectful of Murnau because his Nosferatu literally duplicated so many images from the original. That he wants—or is able—to remake Murnau's classic is doubtful, because his own identification with the extraordinary, the supernatural, keeps running counter to the story's insistence on the tragedy of a being who can never die, therefore never love, never live in the present. What Herzog does is to make his own contrary film inside the original, elevating Jonathan Harker from functionary to dual protagonist, so that at the very moment Dracula is released from eternal life by lingering with Lucy beyond first cock-crow, Jonathan is released from the bourgeois present … to become the new emissary of the undead.

A less schizophrenic work, Woyzeck … is in many ways a faithful adaptation of George Büchner's strange fragmentary play…. Herzog has deleted and compressed some material but invented nothing, and one might assume that he found Büchner's terse, gnomic dialogue, his non-linear construction and his yoking of a cosmic and a social sense of injustice adaptable enough to his own declamatory, disjunctive style. There is also a characteristic Herzog tension in Büchner: the contradiction between his 'new' naturalism (a proletarian hero, first driven crazy and then to murder by an unjust society) and his 'new' expressionism (the brief, elliptical scenes) that made the play unperformable for so long.

Herzog even draws imagery from Büchner that is strongly reminiscent of previous Herzog. The fair which the soldier Woyzeck … attends with his common-law wife Marie … features a demonstration of the 'human' understanding of animals and the low evolutionary standing of some humans (i.e. soldiers) that recalls the exhibition of freaks in Kaspar Hauser. Büchner's archetypes of the bourgeois order, the Doctor and the Captain, who prod experimentally at Woyzeck, and push him towards his final madness by teasing him about Marie's infidelity with the Drum Major, are also dotty rationalists in the Herzog tradition. The stream beside which Woyzeck kills Marie, and in which he tries to wash away his sin, is conjured at the very beginning of the film as an idyllic setting for the placid, strangely toy-like garrison town (Herzog's treatment of man and nature taking him by a more direct route than the conventions of expressionism back to Murnau). Woyzeck's most severe limitation, in fact, might not be its given literary qualities but the extent to which it has allowed Herzog to remake something like Kasper Hauser. Woyzeck is explained here even less than he is in the original: he is an obscurely obsessed mooncalf, tortured by cosmic visions as much as he is victimised by military discipline and the economic need that drives him to take part in the Doctor's experiments. Büchner's references to silence, darkness, blindness, and his apocalyptic biblical parables, are also typical of Herzog, but remain tensely contained in the text, unreleased in the imagery. (pp. 259-60)

[In Woyzeck, Herzog] has, more successfully than in Nosferatu, accommodated his own personality to the original author; and if it is less than exploratory, the film works finally as a canny holding measure. (p. 260)

Richard Combs, "Film Reviews: 'Woyzeck'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1979 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1979, pp. 259-60.

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