DVD Review Of Woyzeck

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/27/08


  One of the signs of a great artist is that even when not at the top of his game he is still capable of flashes of utter brilliance. Such is the case in Werner Herzog’s 1979 film Woyzeck, starring his friend and bane Klaus Kinski. It is not a great film, but is a film with moments of greatness in its eighty minute length, and was the third of five films made by the director-actor team. Part of the reason the film, as a whole, does not reach greatness is because it wears its stage roots too strongly, especially in its overtly philosophic monologues. Not surprisingly, for a stagey film, the tale is claustrophobic, and was shot in just eighteen days, in 1978, in Czechoslovakia, less than a week after Herzog wrapped on his film Nosferatu, Phantom Of The Night, the remake of the F.W. Murnau silent film horror classic.

  The tale is a simple one, about a German soldier, Friedrich Johann Franz Woyzeck (Kinski), in the early 19th Century, who slowly goes mad and kills his faithless lover Marie (Eva Mattes), possibly an ex-prostitute, who is having sex with another military man. Many critics claim that the woman is Woyzeck’s wife, but, as they live apart and she does not bear his name, there is no evidence within the film for this assertion- which is often the case in film criticism, that false information is repeated ad infinitum. But, as simple a tale as the film tells, it is the how of this film that lifts it from possible banality to near greatness. Kinski’s performance, as usual, is riveting, and even though nowhere near as mesmerizing as his titanic performance in Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, it is nonetheless brilliant.

  The most commented upon scene is the one where Woyzeck murders his lover near a pond. It is done in slow motion and to music, and has a certain brilliance to it- especially as Kinski’s character briefly realizes he has gone over the edge, but this sort of violence has been done before onscreen, if not as well. A better scene comes when Woyzeck’s doctor tosses a cat out of a second story window, and Woyzeck catches it, then quivers as the cat shits on him. It’s the kind of odd thing that happens in reality that rarely occurs in film, and Kinski’s portrayal of his reaction to it is every bit as wonderful as the murder scene. What separates a film like this from the trite, opulent, and ultimately stale Merchant/Ivory sort of film, however, is that this film should, by all rights, be a costume drama, yet it is not. Yes, there are costumes, but the reality shown in this film is not of soaring landscapes and marvelous old buildings, but of grimy streets, handheld camera shots of dark, dingy little apartments, not of clean, gilt mansions. This is an intimate period piece, not a costume drama, and its people are life sized quivering little people, not semi-mythic towering heroic creatures. Herzog, as he did in Aguirre and in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, shows the viewer the world as it was, not as how it should have been.

  And Kinski, for once, despite his character’s murderous end, is not some crazed übermensch, but the bullied victim of everyone else in the film. His Army Captain (Wolfgang Reichmann) belittles him as a peasant with low morals, even as Woyzeck wields a straight edge razor to shave him; his military doctor (Willy Semmelrogge) tests out all sorts of drugs and social theories on him- to the point of eating peas for six months and trying to piss on command; and his lover cheats on him. He even gets battered by Marie’s lover (Josef Bierbichler), an officer and Drum Major, who is so strong, even when drunk, he can easily pick up and toss Woyzeck around a bar like a proverbial rag doll, although the man has no idea that Woyzeck is Marie’s child’s father. In a sense, one might say that the characterization is over the top, but, since Kinski’s body language, face, and- especially- those unmistakable blue eyes are so unique, he can get away with things other, lesser actors cannot. In that sense, Kinski is sort of like Jack Nicholson, only an even better actor. With this setup, and the total castration of Woyzeck’s manhood and dignity, he sees no way out of his life save murder. His lone act of volition in the film is a criminal one, and thus Woyzeck can never become the person he claims, in his monologues, to desire. That he has been beset upon by a society that apparently rewards those who abuse others, and kow them into silence, is a great example of a political message being woven into a film that few have ever viewed as political, and opposed to modern ‘Politically Correct’ art, it shows how barren and lacking in both grace and political savvy such art is.

  The film was written by Herzog, based upon an unfinished play by Georg Büchner, written in 1836, and reputedly based upon a real murder of the lover of a military man. Büchner died of typhus at twenty-three 23, and the play was only in unordered fragments. Until the turn of the Twentieth Century, Büchner and his play were all but forgotten. Then, it was revived when Modernism rose in the early part of last century, and has been viewed as a herald of both Modernism and Absurdism, with its lead character as a sort of pre-Beckettian Beckett character. This is captured right from the first scene after the credits, when Woyzeck is drilled as the camera goes at faster than normal speed. He is forced by his superior officer to do exercises, such as squats and pushups, until he drops. Kinski is both comic and pathetic at once, and the audience both identifies with his character and pities him, even when he claims to hear voices urging him to ‘Stab! Stab!’

  The DVD of the film, part of Anchor Bay’s Herzog-Kinski boxed set, is in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The colors are muted, and the print is a bit faded- just slightly, although the cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein is sterling, especially the use of shade, and the rustic deep green, gold, and brown hues of the forest scenes. The camera is often static and there are great long shots of the action, which help distance the viewer from the tale emotionally. When the camera does move it is at eye level and moves unevenly, like a real person. This is not a film that rhapsodizes on the makings of man. If David Lean was the master of filmic epopee then Herzog is the filmic master of the filmic lyric. Herzog never has gratuitous close-ups, nor quick cutting conversational shots of faces as they speak. There is only one major subjective shot in the film, when Woyzeck stumbles upon Marie dancing with her lover. Other than that, his torments are witnessed with the detachment of a scientist and his lab rat, much as Woyzeck is viewed by his Captain and doctor. The only extras on the disk are a three minute trailer, filmographies, and a photo gallery. Given that Woyzeck is one of Herzog’s lesser known films a film commentary should have been recorded, as, on most other Herzog DVDs, Herzog usually gives sterling comments. Also, the DVD lacks an English dubbed soundtrack, as it only has English subtitles. The musical oundtrack in the film is also apt, for it’s not grand and baroque, but amateurish and offkey, and done by the Fiedelquartett Teic. The lone exception is the Guitar Concerto by Antonio Vivaldi that ends the film, where detectives praise the beauty of the murder scene, by the side of the pond where the film opened.

  There is some question, in the minds of some dull critics, over whether or not Woyzeck drowns in the river when he goes back to retrieve the knife he killed Marie with, but there’s absolutely no evidence of this in the film- not visually nor in the few words uttered after that scene. And if the film is based upon the real life incident, one has to wonder where such absurd ideas get started, as well as why they are propagated since they are demonstrably either purely false or very untenable, much as one has to wonder where the idea that Marie is Woyzeck’s wife comes from. The answer is likely that the Lowest Common Denominator’s bane has taken a sizable toll in the critical realm, as well as all other aspects of the arts, but even if true, that is not a pleasant reality that a readership should have to deal with.

  Woyzeck is usually dismissed in the Herzog canon by critics for its visuals- the darkness and static camera shots, for they claim that is part of its staginess. They’re wrong. Not in that such shots are not ‘stagey,’ but in that that’s a bad thing in the film. The visuals all work splendidly in evoking mood. The stagey aspect of the film that denies it greatness is the often too deeply philosophical monologues from such dimwitted characters. This kills some of the realism that film does better than stage productions. Yet, that’s not a major quibble for this excellent little film, with the ‘little’ being used in all its best connotations. Whether Woyzeck is seen as a dark comedy or sinister drama depends upon the viewer’s mood, to a great extent. Like all of the Herzog-Kinski collaborations, this film deals wonderfully with alienation and loneliness, the desire to stay sane under stressful and abnormal circumstances, the inability to cope with frustration, and the staving off of paranoia (usually failed) when under attack- either physically or psychologically. That so few other films, especially in Hollywood, even ponder these aspects momentarily, much less set them center stage, is a thing to be rued. Werner Herzog, however, deserves all the praise he can get, even for these ‘lesser’ films in his oeuvre, for a lesser Herzog will beat ninety-nine out of a hundred so-called critical ‘masterpieces’ from Hollywood. When failures can still get those kinds of odds you’re playing with ‘house money,’ and that’s when it’s ok to think small to reach deeply.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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