Herzog tells it this way: He and Errol Morris, sometime in the mid-70s, decided to meet in Plainfield, Wisconsin, and rendezvous at the Plainfield Cemetery under the cloak of night, where they would dig up Ed Gein’s mother once and for all, to settle what was apparently unsettled business: whether Gein had or not already dug her up himself. (Which is what Robert Bloch, in the story for Psycho, hinted.) Morris shrugged it off and never went; Herzog, of course, showed up in Plainfield on the appointed date, figurative shovel in hand. Uninterested in performing his Geinian task alone (“I was kind of scared, because people open fire easily in this town”), Herzog loitered, tasted the plain, totemic American-ness of Plainfield, and decided to make a movie.
Stroszek (1976), showing in Metrograph’s Whole Lotta Herzog series, is Herzog’s Amerika, just one of his 70s masterpieces, and possibly the greatest film a European ever made about America. From a fart lit on fire to a compulsively dancing chicken, it is Herzog’s most bittersweet film, in which everything utterly ordinary in the Midwest feels outrageously absurd and bruisingly sad on celluloid. Typically, Herzog relies on encountered reality to do a lot of his strange-planet legwork, beginning with the central personage of Bruno S., a mentally impaired street musician who spent a good chunk of his life in institutions, and who Herzog had cast in the lead of Kasper Hauser two years earlier.
Here, in a role written for him that uses aspects of his actual life (including his own accordion and bugle), Bruno is that miraculous Herzogian figure, something so disobediently authentic and un-self-consciously unpredictable that we’re glued to his every discombobulated glance and gesture. He’s not acting, yet he is, pungently, in symphony with both experienced actors (especially Fassbinder vet Eva Mattes) and real Wisconsinians essentially playing themselves. (That includes, uncomfortably, randy mechanic Clayton Szalpinski, whom Herzog on his Geinian sojourn met when his car broke down.) Bruno’s is the greatest of non-performances, a Herzog specialty (which, when you think about it, suggests that Klaus Kinski wasn’t a pro in Herzog’s cosmos so much as another haywire found object).
The film’s tale follows Bruno, fresh from institutional release, trailing along with Eva (as a prostitute getting battered by her pimps) and the diminutive Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), as the three abandon a brutal Berlin for Scheitz’s nephew’s Plainfield spread. The story is all texture, familiar stranger-in-a-strange-land beats executed with Herzog’s distinctively freakish eye and appetite for crazed detail, from the rifle-armed tractor drivers to the bizarrely jabbering auctioneer (very real, featured in a Herzog short made the same year, How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck) to that pathetic chicken, trapped in her arcade prison.
In fact, Herzog could’ve pushed the American surrealism if he’d had a mind to, but he’s too much of a realist — his Wisconsin is as indelible as the midlands of native-made ‘70s road movies, from Easy Rider to Two-Lane Blacktop to Scarecrow, all “looking for America.” Yet here we’re stranded in just another territory of Werner’s World.
Is it a comedy? There’s nothing funny, only something Herzogian, about the preemie ward Bruno visits early on, with a kindly doctor demonstrating a wailing neo-human’s defiant grip instinct. By the film’s square-dance-like ending, a choreography between runaway tow truck, frozen turkey, hunting rifle, and ski lift, the film attains the kind of mundane majesty Herzog mustered as effortlessly from the Amazon and the Sahara. ❖