Saturday, January 22, 2011

Animal Magnetism

Bruno S. watching his mobile home repossessed in the barren
Wisconsin winter landscape in Werner Herzog's Strozek (1977).

The relationship of Bruno Schleinstein and Werner Herzog came to mind while reading a passage from Herzog's 2009 book Conquest of the Useless: Reflections on Making Fitzcarraldo:

A fairly young, intelligent looking man with long hair asked me whether filming or being filmed could do harm, whether it could destroy a person. In my heart the answer was yes, but I said no. (19)

Watching Bruno S. perform for Herzog's camera in spaces like a prison cell, his own apartment in Berlin and later in a mobile home set in the cold beige and brown landscape of central Wisconsin in November, we ponder the potential psychic residue for both men after Stroszek. Drawn together perhaps through the fateful pull of the flux of the fluid described by the German Physician Franz Mesmer, the two men worked together on two films The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974) and Strosek (1977) and never again. In Bruno's obituary dated August 14, 2010, The New York Times quoted his reflection on his post-Herzog celebrity status: "Everybody threw him away." But he did not necessarily feel exploited. "I have my pride, and I can think, and my thinking is very clever," the Times quotes him saying. His flashback performances on camera are cruel and compelling as he appears to relive his childhood experiences in orphanages and at the hands of Nazi tormentors. Bruno and his struggles become integral to Herzog's metaphoric closing scene. A lingering shot of a chicken doomed to dance against a cheerful yellow backdrop for viewers willing to insert a quarter in the slot. The chicken exits and the scene fades to black all the while an ecstatic Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee tune (Hootin' the Blues) plays as the chicken prances leaving viewers to search for meaning in the pained emotions and bleak landscapes that pervaded the film.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee performing Hootin' the Blues (circa 1959)

Infamous dancing chicken scene from Stroszek (1977). Herzog states in the voice over commentary that it seemed to him to be among the most important moments of cinema.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dreams and Nightmares

Werner Herzog (b. 1942) on location for Fitzcarraldo (1982) set in Peru
Werner Herzog's fascination with characters living an extreme existence or landscapes providing an extreme shooting environment pervades his search for ecstatic truth. From the Amazon jungle to central Wisconsin in November, the self-taught German filmmaker has crafted his films around his desire to leave behind a record of the state of the human soul. In a text Herzog wrote for wife Lena Herzog's photographs documenting the pilgrimage site Bodh Gaya in Western Tibet (published in 2002 as Pilgrims: Becoming the Path Itself), he wrote of  Mount Kailash:
The mountain itself is not only a very impressive pyramid of black rock with a cap of ice and snow on its top, it immediately strikes the voyager as something much deeper - an inner landscape, an apparition of something existing only in the soul of man. (9)
Plainfield, Wisconsin (infamous for the crimes of the oft-satirized bachelor farmer/killer Ed Gein), says Herzog in Herzog on Herzog, "is one of those places that are focal points where every thread converges and is tied into a knot...where dreams and nightmares all come together." (146)  In his film Stroszek (filmed in Berlin, Manhattan, Plainfield and Cherokee, North Carolina), Herzog blurs documentary and narrative form to articulate his vision and over-arching concept. Starting with a script based on a real man named Bruno Schleinstein, the film evolved during the process of shooting which has long been a part of Herzog's film making practice. Improvising and collaborating with places, landscapes, animals, pimps, doctors, truckers, deer hunters, auctioneers and waitresses he happens upon, Herzog intuits truths about the "universal theme of shattered hopes" (144) and ends up with a film that questions what it means to be human.

Excerpt from Les Blank's 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams