Stroszek is a simple story about a simple man, who leaves for America with an abused prostitute and an elderly neighbour, in the hope of starting a new life away from the violent and antagonistic Berlin underbelly, that they'd previously been caught up in. To any other filmmaker, the plot would serve as the backdrop to the spiralling melodrama that envelops the character's lives and the harsh realities of their situation. However, in Herzog's hands, the film becomes a surreal, stylised, darkly-comic piece of bleak absurdity, as his characters set off on a stark and seemingly directionless odyssey across the American mid-west, in the earnest belief that the land of opportunity will reward their hard-work, passion and tenacity, with wealth, happiness and good fortune.
Because of these elements, the film has been interpreted by many critics as a scathing review of the American dream and the treatment of naive foreigners who dare to step foot on U.S. soil. However, as far as I'm concerned, the film has much more depth to it than that limiting interpretation would suggest, with Herzog really showing us the destruction of the human spirit and the on going role of the perpetual outsider in society. Obviously, from this, the film has certain parallels with his great masterpiece, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, right down to the casting of Bruno S. as the titular Bruno Stroszek. The casting of Bruno gives the film a certain solemnity, with many elements of the plot (abuse, alienation, mental disability and institutionalisation) drawing parallels with Bruno's own tragic real life and his unbelievable back story. Herzog heightens the drama further, by setting the opening of the film in the same neighbourhood (and, in fact, the very same apartment) where Bruno lived during the time of the production, and even incorporates many of Bruno's eccentric characteristics and possessions into the direction of the character.
The performance of Bruno throughout is quite remarkable (even though he is, for all intensive purposes, playing himself), as he brings to this film the same haunted naivety that worked so well for The Enigma of Kasper Hauser. As with that film, Herzog is here able to anchor the images of the film to that same sense of sadness and awe that is so central to Bruno's inner character, as he watches each scene unfold with wide, childlike eyes, completely curious and overwhelmed by what is happening, though, simultaneously, wracked with pain. This is most apparent in the scene with Bruno and his doctor; in which the doctor takes us on a tour of the premature babies ward, where a collection of pink, wrinkled, almost-embryonic little babies lay in incubation. As the doctor raises the babies up from their frail littler arms to illustrate to Bruno the strength of reflex that these little creatures possess in spite of such short-comings, Herzog creates the ultimate metaphor for both Bruno and the film.
As with Kasper Hauser, Stroszeck is a fated character from the outset, with Herzog clearly marking him out as a true human, too pure for the world around him. There's a great scene midway through the film, one that is akin to the scene in Kasper, in which the character talks in voice-over about sowing his name with seeds into the ground, only for it to be destroyed by heartless antagonists... here, Bruno sits with Eva, the prostitute who he loves, and shows her a small and completely absurd model of what his insides look like without love. It's a long scene, shot with only a couple of takes, and is a real tour-de-force performance from Bruno, in which he tries his hardest to confess his love to the oblivious Eva with a combination of trite, childlike metaphors, and heartbreaking recollections of a hard and loveless life. The film, though darkly comic, is quite oppressive throughout... there are a couple of very difficult-to-watch scenes in which both Bruno and Eva are beaten and tormented by the pimps in Berlin, whilst the scenes between Bruno, Eva, and the slimy bank-executive, seem like a definite precursor to some unavoidable tragedy.
The film has very little colour to it, seeming almost black-and-white in a lot of scenes, with the colours seemingly muted by Herzog and his cinematographer Tomas Maunch (Berlin has never looked so cold and uninviting... whilst the mid-West looks eerie, lifeless and barren), whilst the use of non-professional actors in the secondary roles (particularly those set in the U.S.) helps to give the film a strange and disconcerting air of the documentary, to help juxtapose some of the more absurd situations at the heart of Herzog's script. Despite the usual Herzog characteristics, Stroszeck is also coloured by the influence of other filmmakers, particularly in this case, Herzog's friend and contemporary Rainer Werner Fassbinder (most apparent in the early scenes in Berlin, with the violent pimps, allusions to American melodrama, and rigid, visual composition) and the U.S. documentarian Errol Morris, who's early films depicting the American mid-west were a key-influence on Herzog's representation of the region here.
Stroszek is, without question, a Herzog masterpiece, easily as vital and enjoyable as the more well-known films he made with Klaus Kinski. The performances are astounding throughout, whether from the professionals or the non-professionals (the beautiful Eva Mattes, a regular character in Fassbinder's films, is as remarkable here as she was in Herzog's later underrated film Woyzeck), whilst the style and tone of the film is spot on... managing to offer up many of those sublime moments synonymous with Herzog's work, but with a story and a character that are both entertaining and affecting. The ending is suitably vague, but ties the story together nicely whilst continuing the central character's plunge into the bleak abyss. That iconic image of the dancing chicken speaks volumes about the futility and prolonged madness of life (or something like that) and simply adds to the overall bizarre (almost comedic, almost nightmarish) charm that Herzog so effectively creates.