A melancholy picture, Stroszek oscillates between hopeful and downtrodden. Likewise, the film is both tragic and amusing. It’s Werner Herzog’s dry sensibility as both a screenwriter and a director that allows the material such emotional elasticity. It’s all told in with this dower, German dryness, but without some of the conflated irony that has come to perpetuate some of Herzog’s later films. It’s a sincere film.
In one scene, Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) plays his worn piano; a rickety tune emerges from the lackluster instrument. His neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) comments on how it’s a broken thing. Bruno agrees, but he says if he doesn’t own the poor instrument, who will? Likewise, when prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes) is spurned by the last men who seem likely to give her shelter, Bruno takes her in with open arms. Perhaps Bruno sympathizes because he too has been lost and broken. He’s a recovering alcoholic given another chance at life.
Together, they devise a plan to begin a new life in America. But far from being an redemptive second chance, the two face relational hardships built out of what has to happen for them to even get to American, and once there, the country is so different from their own that they begin to fall back on old patterns in order to cope with the culture shock and general alienation they feel.
One of the great joys of the film is the various musical interludes. The film seems to burst into song spontaneously, the camera lingering on these moments. The whimsy of the music and the rolling camera captures the hopeful, aloof spirit of the film. Sometimes it comes from the character, other times they miss it altogether. One of the funniest moments is a dancing chicken. Sure, it’s a bizarre joke, but it also captures this unbridled spirit: just keep dancing.
Even through some of the dower moments involving the characters and the old ways they slowly slip back into, the interludes open the film up to a wider world. There’s a sense that even if these characters may not get everything they hope for, there is still the spark of hope to be found, a reminder for the joy of life. It can be found in a song, or a sight, or even a dancing chicken.
Stroszek could easily get lost in its own characters, but Herzog constantly breaks away in order to remind the audience that the fate of these characters is somewhat incidental to a world around them that will keep on going. That is not to say that one should not feel for them, but one also might be foolish to read into their own story something universal, especially when the characters tend to neglect the universe that surrounds them more and more with each passing day.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing