Another little issue with acquiring films, so 1979 is coming before ’77 and ’78, but with such a life-affirmingly innocent and upbeat film on tap for ’79, I expect you won’t mind…
Werner Herzog just hates you, doesn’t he? Or maybe he loves you, and his eyes just perk up for a merciless prank on the audience, and a prank on everyone he’s ever met or worked with. Immediately upon finishing the demented tirade that was the demonic carnival shoot of Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht, he grabbed his partner-in-crime Klaus Kinski, or at least Kinski’s eyes (and the man’s stone-faced body went with him). Soon enough, the two were already hot on the tail of another obsessive quest to lose their minds once and for all. Okay, “immediately upon finishing” is very likely a touch of authorial romanticism on my part; rumor has it the two walking threats, after completing Nosferatu, took at least a handful of days off to celebrate their latest maddening cinematic monstrosity in between their ritualistic trips to the torture chambers. Within a week of finishing Nosferatu, though, they just up and quit celebrating and went back in to the pits of torture for another film. Then again, for these two, you have to wonder if self-torture was a form of celebration after all…
If so, then Woyzeck, the film they rush-completed with the fires of mundane life on their tails, is the greatest two-fisted birthday cake either man ever received. Apparently, spending four hours a day preparing to spend many more hours of the day in ghoulish, pallid waxworks make-up from hell wasn’t enough for Kinski. It seems as if the perpetually maddened, tortured actor with portals to hell located right on either side of his nose was chomping at the bit to be punished once more by Herzog and his typically minimalist crew. Thus was born Woyzeck, arguably Herzog’s most pummeling attempt to invent new ways to sever and crack Kinski’s body. At least this time the two weren’t off to barely survive the jungles of the Amazon, but they would make sure they would return to primordial nature once or twice more before their companionship was tragically cut short with Kinski’s death in 1991.
No, for Woyzeck, the two would not attempt to raise the stakes on their torturous, monomaniacal film shoots once more. Woyzeck would be a more secretive form of madness, a form that wouldn’t reveal itself by its very concept. Knowing full well the efforts Herzog undertook to film Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo cues you into the obsessive, oppressive cinema you are about to watch right from the first whisper of the film through your ear. You know that “Herzog dragged a boat over a mountain” is a recipe for cinematic madness. With Woyzeck, which is nominally a more sedate offering about a man (Woyzeck, played by Kinski) subjecting himself to torturous experiments in provincial Germany so as to provide for his illegitimate family, you actually have to see the film to know how disturbed and unforgiving it is. Or to know how corporeally the ghosts of German Expressionism attached themselves to the bodies of Herzog and Kinski after their Nosferatu shoot. It is a nastier trick of a film, then, and thus a more conniving, cunning, devious one: you don’t know what you are getting until you’re trapped in front of the screen.
Surely, a little foreknowledge of Georg Büchner’s play lets the secret slip a little bit; it is, after all, a quintessential treatise on the limits of the human mind, but at least this time Herzog was playing nice, at least on the surface. After all, he was only forcing his cast and crew through 11 days of filming (with no desperate, cavalier travel schedules or nighttime shoots testing their might). They had it easy this time right?
Well, remember, they were tired. Very tired after Herzog’s mercenary production of Nosferatu, finished with a crew of barely more than a dozen. The same group was co-opted to start Woyzeck with little breathing room, and it shows in every tattered and frayed corner of the film, less a harmony of shots and edits than a tied-up bundle of raw nerves scratching against one another. When Herzog does in fact turn to German Expressionism with all the explicit horrors of the modern day left in the production, he is simply throwing a live cobra into the bundle. The idea that Woyzeck would be an easier film is but an illusion, or, befitting Herzog’s pet subject, a delusion of the mind.
Indeed, the apparent lack of ambition in the production of Woyzeck is the film’s ace in the hole; gone is the mystique and beckoning camera of Aguirre or the lusciously deranged chiaroscuro of Nosferatu. Gone is the call to madness, and left, instead, is simply the fact of madness. For a man who was drawn to the subject of madness like a self-hating fly to a spider, or a drunken moth to the sun itself, Woyzeck is Herzog’s Eichmann, his banal film as a study in the banality of madness. It is a torturous work precisely because it shows that madness is not only found at the ends and fringes of the world – with conquistadors in the jungle or vampires in Transylvania – but right in our dearest home.
Herzog is certainly committed to misshaping anything we hold dear with Woyzeck, twisting and stabbing into our world through the cracked mirror of Woyzeck’s mind. The film’s perversions filter through the prism of Expressionism itself, bellowing toward the classical German myths and childhood folklores and implicitly drawing and redrawing the line between pre-cinematic fables of punishment and purity and early cinema itself. Herzog’s film rekindles those art forms for both their frolicsome and whimsical selves and their disturbed, tricky, irksome, and hostile alter-egos. Soon enough, we are witnessing a modern-day fable, not only because Jörg Schmitt-Reitwein’s fascinatingly plastic, diorama-like cinematography directs us to the fable-like tapestry of the piece. It is a fable because it plays out with the elegance and universality of a fable – it is a film that could be understood by a child, and thus is its genius.
So many of Herzog’s films were about humankind tempting the elements, but the elements were always masks for humankind tempting its own limits, seeing how far itself as a species could go. Woyzeck is Herzog’s literalization of this theme, casting himself (implicitly, not literally) in the role of a doctor and captain who subject Woyzeck to emotional torture. In doing so, Herzog self-reflexively hints with no remorse at the ways he had torn apart Kinski’s lifeblood and mental well-being throughout his films. Thus, Woyzeck is Herzog’s most damning statement to himself, and to film directors, and the most worrisome, most challenging gesture the film makes is that Herzog never seems to be judging the doctor or the captain, so much as noting their presence. The scabrously playful opening (the nastiest Monty Pyton skit about military order the group never filmed, proving Herzog’s penchant for humor so dictatorial it could choke Henry Kissinger with laughter) reveals no blame.
The scene, as with many future scenes that play with stagecraft and grotesquely sensational public performance, only expresses bewilderment and fascination. Herzog, ever the pitiless man, is watching his characters, but not saving them. Throughout the film, Herzog is rather literally propping Woyzeck up like a deranged puppet at his whim, testing him until he snaps and the world of stagecraft, of horrific fables, becomes his own sense of sanity. When Kinski, here more than ever before, looks directly into the camera, Herzog is teasing, hinting at Woyzeck’s life as a theater piece for an audience, hinting at how Woyzeck no longer knows the benefit of a private mind to return to.
Contrasting the mental torture with the domesticity of the interior frames of Woyzeck’s illegitimate child with his mother, Herzog plays on the private and public divide to sever Woyzeck’s ability to separate the two spheres of life. Woyzeck’s most damning pain is that he can never be alone with his family, for the woman’s husband – a superior officer in the military – is always present. The theater of everyday life – having to move behind the man’s back, having to listen to his commanding officers, and having to entrust his love to the shadows – becomes part and parcel with the horror-shows Woyzeck participates in. The film is not merely a study in Grand Guignol, but a reflection of how the sanity of the individual human mind is tempted and taunted by the social violence of compliance with social hierarchy. And a reflection of the deceit one must sell oneself daily to continue their own participation in a masquerade of self-policing and pain. Woyzeck’s eventual breakdown, his act of becoming the monster his commanders wished him to become, is both a rebellion against his own passivity and a submission to the system of dehumanization his passivity was compliant with.
If Woyzeck isn’t quite Herzog’s most incandescent expression of the human ego, that is also a necessary chopping block the film must submit itself to. It is likely his most egoless film on the subject because it requires a more mundane treatment. It makes no gestures toward poetry, taking away any and all sense of the romantic glory in Aguirre’s eyes or the sniveling, carnal thirst in Count Orlok’s, leaving violence and desperation that exist not with any pretenses of beauty, but only the mask of order. It is evil having systematized itself, a systematization discovered in Herzog’s military-like commitment to ruthlessly spare frames and scenes stitched together like maddening clockwork. It is evil having perfected itself, having made itself efficient. Herzog took a cue from his subject, and he made his most cruelly single-minded film. He gives us no time to wander the forlorn architecture of the most frightening regions of humanity. All he gives us is man’s mortality, and man’s crushing realization of that mortality, served up on a platter of rust and bone. In the final ghostly image – a specter of a scene laid onto the film from the remnants of Nosferatu – Herzog only grants us one option: to drift into the foggy darkness and never return.