Thursday, February 11, 2010

Woyzeck (Herzog 1979)

There are some ways of describing a film that have simply become clichés, and I do my best to avoid using them. Referring to a film as a “minor work” is one such description that has fallen into overuse. Yet when it comes to Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck, I really cannot think of anything better than to describe it as a minor work. While I still have many films to go in my viewing of all of Herzog’s work, Woyzeck simply feels like a filler project, going over ideas and concepts that other films and filmmakers, including Herzog himself, have touched on before without really saying anything new, or at least finding a new vantage point from which to talk about these topics.

Based on a play by Georg Buchner and set in the early 1800s, Woyzeck is the story of Franz Woyzeck (Klaus Kinski, once a frequent collaborator with Herzog despite their equally frequent clashes), a poor private in the military whom has had an illegitimate child with his wife Marie (Eva Mattes). To earn money for his family, Franz performs tasks for his Captain, who views him as little more than a cheap amusement, and also works as a guinea pig for a local doctor’s bizarre and cruel experiments. Used an abused, Franz hears voices inside his head, but seemly remains stable enough to ensure his family is taken care of. When his Captain lets slip that Franz’s wife is having an affair with a Drum Major, the last remains of Franz’s sanity begin to collapse with tragic results.

Woyzeck certainly isn’t a bad film, yet it never manages to be as engaging as one would hope from a work by Herzog. Herzog approaches the film in a fairly detached and ironic manner, utilizing a series of long takes with a mostly stationary camera which allows the viewer to carefully observe Franz Woyzeck and the world around him. Herzog also presents the events of the film in a manner which may be linear, or may be totally fragmented, furthering the feeling of disconnect from the world of the film. In taking this approach to the film, Herzog allows the viewer to be objective in the act of watching the narrative unfold while at the same time giving viewers a sense of how Franz views the world. The balance between objectivity and subjectivity is a major accomplishment, and for that alone the film is certainly worth viewing. Furthermore, Herzog's approach to the film transforms the viewer into one of the clinical scientists and military officials that observe Franz as a curiosity, a point made clear time and again when Kinski as Franz gazes out of the screen and directly at the viewer, seemingly lost in confusion and pain and in search of answers that never come, thus putting the whole of the cinematic apparatus under critical examination.

However, as magnificent as the film making and narrative technique are, Woyzeck never really manages to be overly involving on any level. Emotionally, the film is too detached to truly draw in the viewer into the narrative. We have a sense of who Franz is, and even a limited understanding of him, yet as noted, the viewer is encouraged to remain distanced from Franz and approach him (and the film as a whole) from an intellectual perspective. Yet intellectually the film is not overly involving either. Class politics, time, religion, money, exploitation and the relationship between the individual and the whole of society are all subjects that the film examines, yet it all feels tired and doesn't offer anything new to the discussion of these topics. Indeed,much of the subject matter and even the observational, detached style are reminiscent of Herzog’s earlier film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). While both films are certainly different from one another, Woyzeck in many ways feels like a collection of ideas that Herzog didn’t get to use in the earlier work, resulting in Woyzeck feeling like a retread rather than a progression for Herzog as a filmmaker.

The film also occasionally suffers from the conflict between Herzog’s brilliant cinematic visuals and the dialogue that comes from the original play (presumably from the play, I really should say, as I have never read the work, nor seen a production of it). It’s not that the dialogue is bad, but rather that Herzog makes many of his points visually, nullifying the need for the dialogue. I admit that this point is a nitpick, but it was certainly something that occurred to me during the film and continued to bother me afterwards.

Yet, I don’t want to come down too hard on Woyzeck, as there is wonderful material to be found in the film, from moments of grim satirical humour with both the Captain and the Doctor, to the brilliant execution of a scene of murder that is shockingly violent whilst showing the viewer nothing. Then there is the haunting closing shot in the film, with the sinister and ironic closing text that does manage to bring the film to a powerful close.

Then of course, there is Klaus Kinski, who is at his reserved best in the film as the title character. Tortured, confused and yet strangely articulate, Kinski manages to portray a dissent into madness in a manner that dodges the overblown performances of other actors in similar roles. It isn’t Kinski’s definitive work, but it is damn fine work that continues to show why Kinski is held in such high regard as an actor.

Still, I cannot help but feel that Woyzeck is a film that should probably wait until one has seen all of Herzog’s greater works, or viewed before seeing any of his efforts. It’s a good film, but in a career of great films, flawed but ambitious films, and films that are fascinating failures, Woyzeck can wait to be seen.

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