Werner Herzog Stanley Kauffmann - Essay

Stanley Kauffmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Werner Herzog's Stroszek] continues one of his favorite themes: craziness in and of our world…. Stroszek is a young man, not quite competent mentally, who is battered by today's Germany and who emigrates to the US with two other battered people—a young whore and a very old man—looking for refuge with the old man's American nephew in Wisconsin.

The picture splits in more than setting. The German half is a broodingly taut, if somewhat trite account of the bullying of the helpless Stroszek by two burly pimps because he has befriended their abused whore. Herzog handles this section easily, taciturnly. But strain runs through the American section. The ease is gone, and what we get is a collection of grotesque souvenirs. As with Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities, the tourist's notebook is figuratively out, for crudeness and rudeness….

Also, in the American section Herzog relies a lot on improvisation and "stolen" footage, and much of it is clumsy. Worst, he manufactures the debacle at the end. Everything seems to be going OK in Wisconsin, then suddenly—just because Herzog needs it—everything goes wrong. He ends with very heavy symbolism: Stroszek circling aimlessly on a cable car while some conditioned chickens in an amusement arcade react repeatedly to repeated stimuli. This corn is far beneath the best of Herzog.

Stroszek has touches of that best. For instance, Stroszek, in middle distance, his back to us, watches his American trailer-home being hauled away in the background because payments are overdue. He is stationary: the house he has been living in simply slides laterally out of the frame. It's a Keaton touch. (p. 25)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Films: Watching on the Rhine" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1977 by Stanley Kauffmann) in The New Republic, Vol. 177, Nos. 8 & 9, August 20 & 27, 1977, pp. 24-5.∗