To read a description of Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek, it sounds like one of the most depressing films ever made. An alcoholic is released from prison in Berlin and immediately makes for the nearest bar, where he meets an abused prostitute who he takes pity on and agrees to help, prompting her pimps to show up and beat them up, destroying his accordion with which he scratches out his meager living. With an eccentric neighbor, they flee to a barren little town in Wisconsin, where their great dream of living in a trailer home is dashed when they can’t pay the bills. A desperate and ridiculous armed robbery gets the old man arrested, and Stroszek is left alone when his girlfriend runs off with some truckers. This is also the last film watched by British new wave musician, who hanged himself shortly after watching it on TV, despite being on the verge of a major American tour.
However, the experience of watching Stroszek is very different than reading about it. While the film is indeed bleak, it is also engaging and heartfelt. The character of Stroszek does not pity his own desperate situation, and Herzog’s camera also does not dwell on his setbacks with any amount of sentimentalism.
Herzog was originally planning to make a film adaptation of the German play Woyzeck with Bruno S., an untrained actor who he previously cast in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), but at the last minute decided that the main character was better suited to Klaus Kinski, who would appear in Herzog’s Woyzeck in 1979. Bruno S. complained that he had already taken a leave of absence from the factory where he worked as a forklift operator, and was counting on the pay he would get from the film. Herzog wrote Stroszek in four days especially for part-time actor. Herzog first spotted Bruno S. in a documentary on street musicians, and immediately decided to build Kaspar Hauser around him, despite his lack of acting experience. Herzog must have seen the parallels between the lives of the enigmatic 19th-century foundling and the troubled son of a prostitute, who spent much of his life in various institutions. The untrained actor really inhabited his role in the first film, wearing his costume even after filming ended each day and Herzog remembered visiting him in his hotel room to find him asleep on the floor in full costume. The actor was difficult, but Herzog had a knack dealing with difficult actors. In their second film together, Herzog drew from his actor’s own life, filming scene in his own apartment and using his own instruments.
It is the bond between the two men that makes Stroszek what it is, and Herzog is able to draw out a subdued, but intense performance. After Bruno S. died recently, Herzog remarked “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. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him.”