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May 17, 1980. Britain has only three TV channels and one of them, BBC2, is screening Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. I can’t remember what I was doing that night but as it was a Saturday and I was in my late teens, I would likely have been out drinking or maybe seeing a concert. David Lynch, working in London on The Elephant Man, did tune in. So too, more famously, did Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.

It would be the last film he would ever see before hanging himself.
When this fact emerged, it made me search out Stroszek. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got to see this unforgettable 1976 release by one of the most important German New Wave directors, Werner Herzog.

As the central character Bruno Stroszek, Herzog chose Bruno Schleinstein (styled here as Bruno S.), a man who had spent the bulk of his early years in mental institutions and had been perfectly cast two years earlier in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, at which point he had no acting experience of any kind.

The script was penned in just four days. According to Herzog anyway, who you might want to believe or not on the matter. The film had been written specifically for Schleinstein – partly due to Herzog’s guilt at ditching him for the lead role in Woyzeck in order to accommodate Klaus Kinski at the last minute.

Stroszek would have a huge biographical element. The messy Berlin flat with the piano and glockenspiel was Bruno’s. The bar he drinks in was his local at the time. The courtyard where he plays his accordion is where he would often busk.

Bruno Schleinstein is the most fascinating actor to appear in any films of the New German Cinema era. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who hit him so savagely that he had problems with his hearing. At one point he even lost the ability to communicate. The beatings did eventually stop. But only when she dumped him into an asylum. The young Bruno was then subjected to a number of Nazi experiments and punishments. He recounts one of these ordeals, about being caught bed-wetting, in the only improvised scene of the Stroszek.

It’s almost inevitable that Joy Division fans will speculate that Bruno must have reminded Ian Curtis of at least some of the individuals that he helped find employment or access benefits when he worked as a Disablement Resettlement Officer in what was then known as a labour exchange. Not that I’m pointing any blame in the direction of Herzog and his film for the tragic end of Curtis’s life.

‘I wish this singer was still alive and hadn’t seen Stroszek at that moment,’ Herzog told Jason Parkes in a Q&A for BBC4. ‘Deep at the bottom of my heart I do believe that Stroszek was not the reason that he killed himself. I do believe that he must have had some very, very serious deeper other reasons and he may have, and I’m very cautious, he may have used the film as a ritual step into what he was doing.’

Stroszek -Bruno & Eva

Bruno prepares to leave prison and is warned by a well meaning warden to avoid alcohol and, if he should enter a bar, to order coffee and cake instead. Once free, he heads straight to Beer Himmel (Heaven) where he doesn’t order coffee and cake.

Eva Mattes (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant & Effi Briest), a future wife of Werner Herzog, was given the role of Eva, a prostitute beaten and humiliated by two thuggish pimps whenever her takings drop below their expectations. She takes up Bruno’s offer of refuge at his flat and begins an undefined relationship with him. Additionally, she befriends Bruno’s neighbour Herr Scheitz, a frail and elderly man with a passion for offbeat science, played by early Herzog regular Clemens Scheitz.

Herr Scheitz’s nephew Clayton has invited his uncle to join him and live in Railroad Flats in Wisconsin, and he has agreed to the idea. When Eva takes another brutal beating from her pimps, the trio hatch a plan to move together to the States. Clayton soon sources work for both Bruno (working in his garage) and Eva (who can become a waitress). Considering they are currently in Berlin, one of Europe’s biggest cities, they seem strangely excited about a move to the Midwest.

Stroszek - The Trio

This exodus of eccentrics arrives with their soon to be confiscated mynah bird and spend a day sightseeing in New York City. Using guerrilla style methods, Herzog managed to get arrested three times for filming without a shooting permit. Later, he became adept at forging this kind of thing.

They buy a wreck of a car to drive to Railroad Flats, a truck-stop town that is in reality called Plainfield. It’s no coincidence that this is the hometown of the serial killer Ed Gein, the man who inspired both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There are many scenes in Stroszek that will likely sear into your memory and never leave, like when a sympathetic doctor takes Bruno to visit a ward for prematurely born babies and demonstrates the astonishing strength of one baby’s grip. It’s almost disturbing and then oddly beautiful.

Then there’s the foreclosure sale where the auctioneer doesn’t just motormouth his way through proceedings but launches into some kind of bizarre hyper-speak that has a touch of Mongolian throat singing about it. Apparently he was a real-life world livestock auctioneering champion.

What makes this even weirder is that the auction is for the repossessed mobile home and belongings of Bruno and his friends. Ian Curtis is shown watching this scene in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control.

Stroszek - Mobile Home

Most memorable, though, has to be the legendary final scene, shot in a Cherokee run tourist trap in North Carolina. I’ll have to warn you at this point that the following paragraphs may include spoilers.

Here Bruno causes chaos. He vacates his truck and leaves it turning round and round in circles as it catches fire. He visits a very odd animal arcade with performing pets in metal exhibition cages. There’s a drumming duck, a rabbit fireman, a piano playing chicken and a dancing chicken who displays some nifty footwork as it tidbitts across its tiny circular stage, accompanied by some tinny and repetitive arcade music.

Next, Bruno takes a chairlift up to the nearby steep hill carrying a gun that until recently had belonged to Scheitz. As he ascends, Herzog pans his camera upwards. With Bruno below the frame, a shot is fired and presumably, he kills himself.

The last dialogue we hear is from a Cherokee officer who radios into his headquarters: ‘We’ve got a truck on fire, I have a man on a lift, and we are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off. Can’t stop the dancing chicken. If you send us an electrician, we’ll be standing by. Over.’

Words that inspired the run-out grooves on the 1981 Joy Division double album Still.

‘The chicken won’t stop’ (A1); Chicken tracks across the grooves (sides A2 & B1), and ‘The chicken stops here’ (side B2).

Herzog then cuts back to the dancing chicken and its epileptic little stomps soundtracked not only by the arcade din but by a manic version of Lost John by whooping bluesman Sonny Terry. With the rabbit’s fire brigade siren, the other chicken pecking its piano and the rabbit’s random drumbeats, this builds into one truly delirious cacophony.

What the significance of this final section is I cannot say for sure. It’s utterly preposterous but absolutely works. In his audio commentary, Herzog claims that everybody on the shoot hated the sequence. He can’t explain it. ‘It contains some part of me that escapes my own analysis. It’s this dream moment, like in soccer, when you score a goal from an angle that is theoretically impossible… I don’t ever regret filming these sequences.’

After both his collaborations with Schleinstein, Herzog ‘demanded’ an Oscar for Bruno. Predictably, the Academy ignored him.

Schleinstein died in 2010 and, in tribute, Werner Herzog remarked that ‘in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him.’

If you like Stroszek, then you might also like Fata Morgana. Although you might not.

Shot in the late 1960s and premiered in Cannes in 1971, this is ‘a science-fiction elegy of demented colonialism in the Sahara.’ According to Herzog anyway.

This is one of those obscurities that became popular with the hippy crowd whenever it was shown on the midnight movie circuit or student union film societies in the 1970s. Think Zabriskie Point and La Vallee. And imagine that audience happily puffing away wherever these screenings were taking place. And not all of that smoke being of a legal variety.

Fata_Morgana

Fata Morgana is a near abstract film. Herzog and his three-man crew shot footage with no real idea what this would ultimately become. Interpret as you like.

There is certainly some startling cinematography, particularly of desert landscapes with occasional striking images, often of abandoned vehicles and machinery, and dead and rotting animal carcases. There’s also some narration – reciting Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh – that only served as a distraction.

The most enjoyable aspect of Fata Morgana for me is the music, in particular, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and So Long Marianne, as well as The Third Ear Bands’ Ghetto Raga.