Stroszek (1977)
Directed by Werner Herzog

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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After he is released from prison, Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), a young alcoholic street performer, lets Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute who is being terrorized by a pair of local bullies, stay in his flat. These thugs continue to torment Eva, however, and she and Bruno decide to leave their home in Berlin and accompany their elderly neighbor, Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), to America, where he is going to live with his nephew.

Werner Herzog's Stroszek is a charmingly simple and often genuinely touching movie that, if never truly great, is still an impressive achievement.

The film is often visually pedestrian, but the very drabness of the images Herzog has included emphasizes the squalor and hopelessness of his characters' world and so gives their lives a poignant sense of veracity. Bruno and his companions wander through a dilapidated, wretched Berlin and move to an America that is every bit as grim. What is more, even if the viewer is not affected by Stroszek's melancholic plainness, he will, almost certainly, be captivated by its occasional weirdness. A number of sequences towards the movie's conclusion are especially fun to watch. Herzog then treats the moviegoer to a strange display in which a chicken is made to dance on a turntable and to burning truck spinning round and round in front of a building shaped like a teepee.

Some of the events depicted in Stroszek are just as odd as these images are. Besides showing one of the most ineptly committed and funniest crimes ever portrayed in cinema, Herzog has scenes in which Scheitz tests the electrical impulses generated by the bodies of human beings and dead animals, a performance of a jaunty song by Bruno in a crumbling theater, and much more. All of these add a peculiar humorousness to the movie that somehow makes it both involving and attractive.

In spite of such pleasant qualities, the tone of Stroszek is generally dark. Having been released from prison, Bruno returns to a grey world filled with sorrows. Not only is he himself bullied and assaulted, but he is also surrounded by the sufferings of others. Eva's troubles, for example, are far worse. Tragically, when Bruno follows Scheitz to America, largely because Eva desires to leave Berlin, he does not find there the land of limitless wealth he thought he would, but a country like any other, where his life is just as difficult as it was in Germany.

Seeing all these elements, the viewer is sure to be drawn into Bruno's world and feel that character's isolation and sadness. Even the movie's comic touches merely contribute to the sense of desperation that permeates the narrative.

Lastly, I should add that the performances of the actors are all accomplished. Bruno S., in particular, is a pleasure to watch. He has an unstudied authenticity that is genuinely bewitching. Fortunately, he is not the only performer who acquits himself well. Eva Mattes successfully brings out her character's wretched state and self-destructiveness without ever making the movie seem maudlin or forced. Even Clemens Scheitz, though hardly the best actor I have ever seen, is so quirky and has such a likeable on screen presence that he is engaging.

While Stroszek may not be Herzog's best film, it is memorable and affecting.

Review by Keith Allen

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