on 21 March 2005
Woyzeck was the third collaboration between filmmaker Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, following their initial brushes with madness on the masterpiece Aguirre, Wrath of God and their later re-imagining of Murnau's Nosferatu. Here, the dual themes of madness and isolation, so prevalent in those abovementioned collaborations, is merged, with Herzog creating a haunting and affecting chronicle of one man being gradually pushed beyond the boundaries of reasonability and far into the realms of obsession, psychosis and eventually, murder. As with the majority of the director's work, Woyzeck has it's own cinematic atmosphere that is both challenging and hypnotic. Many of his previous films, for example, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser and Heart of Glass, had employed the use of long, static-takes, evaluating in an almost clinical fashion, these marionette-like actors. However, whereas those films had integrated this stylised, theatrical approach to cinematography alongside the more identifiable Herzog flourishes (evocative landscapes, close-ups, and seemingly improvised hand-held cameras that wander curiously from scene to scene), Woyzeck is almost constantly static.
This is without a doubt Herzog's most stylised and theatrical work - which is hardly surprising, given that it was adapted from a bleak George Büchner play - with the director utilising the limitations of the camera's frame and the production design - not to mention the use of light and shadow - to really add intensity and depth into a story that could have, quite easily, succumb to monotony. Right from the start we are drawn into the film's world, with a lingering panoramic view of a quiet, provincial town, surrounded by water, giving way to a high-speed shot of Kinski lining up for regiment training. The use of different film-speeds here is important, with Herzog really defining the mental state of the character, whilst simultaneously foreshadowing the amazing use of slow motion towards the end of the film. To merely claim that Herzog and Kinski we're being punk rock is churlish, and really does a great disservice to the way this filmmaker works (after all, most punks were merely talentless posers coasting on attitude and the ability to shock... Herzog means it!!). The use of different film-speeds here is, for me, as important as the use of varying film-speeds in the work of Tarkovsky and Scorsese, and, on a more recognisable level, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. The almost comic introduction, which sees Woyzeck going through the stages of abusive, military training (shot in a similarly militaristic way and backed by that evocative theme music), really sets up the character's feelings of despair and frustration, which, are perfectly embodied and personified by the ferocious Kinski in perhaps his best performance.
As a vision of mental deterioration, Woyzeck is without equal... going further than a film like Taxi Driver to show the natural and horrific conclusion of lust and paranoia. Throughout the film, Herzog has his camera remain fixed to Kinski's Woyzeck as he stalks around the bars, barbers and town-square, with a look of absolute torture etched into his face. In many scenes, Herzog even has Kinski look directly into the camera, to further illustrate the theatricality of the text and to breakdown the wall between the audience and the protagonist. This is most apparent in the two scenes in which Woyzeck goes to the local bar. In the first scene - which is beautifully lit like a Caravaggio painting - Woyzeck is harassed by a drunken soldier (who incidentally, is having an affair with Woyzeck's wife), and a brief, though humiliating, altercation ensues. Here, Herzog is foreshadowing a later scene in the film, as well as visually illustrating the emotional distance and isolation that Woyzeck has to the other men in the bar. The use of renaissance-style lighting, in which a spot of light illuminates separate characters whilst the rest of the scene remains black, perfectly demonstrates the growing sense of paranoia and loneliness that Woyzeck is slowly being destroyed by. This isn't the only instance in which Herzog and his cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein distance the characters from one another by means of exaggerated composition. In the second bar scene, which takes place after the film's most devastating sequence, a bloody and beleaguered Woyzeck goes to the bar in a state of emotional abandon, and is surrounded by a large group of patrons who are suspicious of the red stains on his uniform.
Here, Herzog has the supporting-actors stand like statues, composed as if posing for a painting, whilst Kinski (all pent up emotion and staring eyes... the only actor allowed to move!!) fights his way through the horde, like a trapped animal. It's similar to certain scenes in Heart of Glass and also Nosferatu, with the director's stark and surreal stylisations making the film more mysterious and beguiling than the story probably seems. However, for me, the film really belongs to Kinski, who here gives a subtle and restrained performance that owes nothing to the spirit of Aguirre and the later Fitzcarraldo. Just look at the reaction on his face, the pent up rage, pain and animalistic movements and he falls into the tall grass and cries into the mud... or his pained, rage-filled reaction as he pulls the knife up in slow motion in what must be one of Herzog's most audacious scenes. For me, Woyzeck is one of Herzog's greatest cinematic experiments, as relevant as Aguirre, Kasper Hauser and Stroszeck, and is easily the best performance Kinski has ever delivered. Hopefully this re-mastered DVD will inspire those with a passing interest in Herzog and Kinski to check it out... it's well worth it.