Sunday, March 29, 2009

Movie Notes: Woyzeck (1979)

I've been meaning to talk about Werner Herzog here for some time. Herzog's films are never really disappointing to me; even when they're not entirely to my tastes, I always find them surprising and illuminating in some strange way. Woyzeck is not really a tour de force like Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes; but it has a number of standout scenes, great dialogue, and is solidly constructed.

In the third of their collaborations together, Herzog directs Klaus Kinski playing Friedrich Johann Franz Woyzeck, a soldier in 19th century Germany who murders the mother of his child for being unfaithful to him. The character is pathetic, cringing and a bit deranged; but the script- based in the unfinished 1836 play by Georg Büchner (which has been performed any number of times in Germany)- the performance and the direction are sympathetic, casting Woyzeck as a victim of a bullying society that gives him no real freedom, aside from bullying the one person who might conceivably be more pathetic than he is.

It's impossible not to feel bad for poor Woyzeck: the General constantly hectors him about his moral fiber, his physician is experimenting on him to see if he can drive Woyzeck mad by allowing him to eat nothing but peas, and his beloved Marie has put the horns on him with a higher ranking officer. Kinski plays Woyzeck with a thousand yard stare that looks as if he is afraid of the entire universe, and indeed he seems to be convinced that there are things underground and in the air communicating with him, and stringed instruments that want him to commit murder. If there was ever an actor who was born to play this character, it's Klaus Kinski, Germany's Most Haunted.

Herzog is also sympathetic to Marie, who is a relatively pathetic little thing, and he seems to see the other characters as being nearly as cracked as Woyzeck; there is also a social conscience here- Herzog realizes that the poor cannot expect much from life. He stages the film in a series of gorgeous, nearly static shots; it's hard to remember the film as having more than twenty or so scenes, and many of them one remembers as photographs. But, as in all Herzog films, it's the oddities: a monkey in military uniform, a "scientist" throwing a cat out of a window to Woyzeck for research purposes, a six-minute slow-motion murder, the General explaining that he went to war to express his love for humanity, those damned peas, etc., that really stand out in your memory.

Werner Herzog is cinema's poet of man's experience of a strange and overwhelming world; so he's ideal for directing this story.

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