*As always, there will be SPOILERS throughout this article. And also remember, despite my praise of these films and Kinski’s performances, he was still, very much, a piece of shit.
This is the second film (of two) in the Herzog/Kinski collection that I had not watched until I decided to write this series of articles. It’s interesting that I skipped this and Nosferatu since they have quite a few similarities. They were both made in 1979. They were both based on German classics. And they feature, in my opinion, the least interesting locations. I ended up liking both of these films, but I think I would appreciate them more if I was more of a Germanophobe (is that a thing?). I have no special place in my heart for Nosferatu and I didn’t even know Woyzeck was a play until I did a little research. Still, both are good, interesting films, and Woyzeck in particular is impressive for the speed with which it was made. Next week, however, I get to return to one of my favorites: Fitzcarraldo. But this week, it’s Woyzeck, the film about the tortured soldier who may or may not be acting crazy as the result of a doctor’s “all pea” diet.
A tired Kinski is an efficient Kinski.
Werner Herzog made this film just five days after completing Nosferatu, using the same crew. It took eighteen days and was edited in four. The entire eighty-minute film consists of twenty-seven takes. That efficiency, coupled with the existential plot, quite possible makes it the most German film ever made.
The back to back nature of the two films was probably just Herzog being as efficient as possible, mainly because of his typical method with Kinski. Kinski, according to Herzog, typically wanted to go big with his performances while Herzog wanted a more subdued take. So Herzog would let him go big, and he would argue with him behind the scenes to wear him down. If Herzog was to make a film quickly, he wouldn’t be able to do that...unless he just kept going. So Kinski was burnt out from Nosferatu, making him easier to work with for Woyzeck.
It’s such a silly way to work, but you can’t argue with the results. Woyzeck is meant to be a disturbed, beaten down man, and Kinski embodies that. Partially, that’s due to his own talent, but I imagine a big part of that was the scheduling of the two films back to back. It makes for a truly uncomfortable performance, and I did not like having to look at Kinski’s face throughout the film. I think that’s the point, though. We’re watching a man being attacked on all fronts be driven to murder. That cannot be a fun watch.
Herzog’s German classics double feature of 1979.
I knew Nosferatu was a classic German film (or just plain film, really), but I had no idea what Woyzeck was. After doing some research, I can see why Herzog was drawn to the play. Though unfinished, it deals with plenty of Herzog mainstays: madness, manipulation, existentialism. But since the play is unfinished, it leads to a disjointed film. At times, I found the quick, seemingly unconnected transitions annoying, but as the film went on, and Woyzeck became more and more disturbed, it seemed fitting that all the pieces didn’t fit together nicely. When I make an argument like that (claiming choppy editing is actually a positive), I always feel like I’ve just drank the Kool-Aid, and I’ll praise anything. But that’s really not the case. Herzog may be a filmmaker that does not plan things out, but he knows how film works, and everything he does is intentional, no matter the source material.
The unfinished aspect helps out thematically, but the story overall is interesting as well, with its focus on the common man and everything that conspires against him. Most of Woyzeck’s plight is relatable to the common man. He feels inconsequential and unworthy. His poverty drives his every action. He is absent from home trying to make money which drives his wife to another man. He is beaten and derided by his superiors. There’s plenty to relate to there, but when the doctor appears, things get weird.
Apparently to make extra money, Woyzeck is the guinea pig of a delusional doctor who appears to simply enjoy performing random experiments on Woyzeck, then passing off the results as evidence of some hypothesis he has. In the main scene with the doctor, he is strangely angry with Woyzeck for peeing on a wall, and he references his prescribed diet of nothing but peas, which will then transition to nothing but mutton. None of it makes sense, and it isn’t meant to. The doctor is an example of the upper classes using the lower for their experiments and/or amusement.
All of this leads Woyzeck to hear apocalyptic messages from the earth itself, which eventually leads to him killing his unfaithful. It’s a tragedy, to be sure, but more than that the film is a boiling pot, and it’s almost a relief when he finally kills his wife. Herzog presents the scene as a catharsis, presenting in in slow motion to a resounding score. It’s as if to say, “What else could this man do?” Once again, this is possibly the most German thing I’ve ever watched.
Perhaps the most German thing about the film is that it’s presented at times as a comedy. The scenes with the doctor and the captain are certainly goofy, and the beginning sequence is comedic as well, presented in fast forward and focused on Kinski’s comically stressed face. It’s a very Herzog, and German, thing to find some bit of comedy in such misery. It’s kind of the point of it, I guess. What else can you do but find some humor in this shitty world? Oh crap, did I just become German?
Would I buy this if it wasn’t part of a collection?
No. It’s just one of those movies I would never want to see again. As with Nosferatu, I’m glad it’s part of the collection, but it’s not very rewatchable, in my opinion. I prefer my Herzog/Kinski films to be a bit more grand, which is why I’m looking forward to Fitzcarraldo next week.
I can't think of a worse person to shave someone… That whole sequence made me nervous. Could you imagine Kinski erratically shaving your neck and face? I get chills thinking about it.
Some of the most German lines I noticed:
“If we made it to heaven they'd make us work the thunder.”
“You look hunted.”
“Why does man exist?”
“All things of this world are evil.”
“Even money decays.”
“You should have an economical death.”
“Dance, sweat, and stink. He will get you all in the end.”
I seriously wonder if Mike Myers watched this movie and was inspired to create his Dieter character for SNL.
Kinski really seems to like the carnival. Happy Kinski bothers me.
It wouldn’t be Herzog/Kinski without some animal abuse! I doubt the carnival animals were well kept, but it’s the cat being thrown out the window that would probably anger animal rights groups. I don’t know which is worse for the cat: being thrown out a window or being caught by Kinski.
Never go on an all pea diet…