Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Woyzeck (1979)


Werner Herzog is well known for his daring approach to filmmaking and for his commitment to taking risks in service of his never ending search for the ‘ecstatic truth’ within an image. But in many ways his boldest filmmaking move occurred during 1978/9 when he made two films back to back that were based on pre-existing material highly venerated in Germany. The first was a remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent expressionistic horror classic Nosferatu (1922) with Klaus Kinski playing the eponymous bloodsucker. The second was the trickier proposition of adapting Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck - a demanding work requiring the steely nerve of a major actor to cope with the harrowing treatment the character endures. With just a week off after the completion of shooting on Nosferatu Kinski stepped up to the plate and 18 days later the shooting of Woyzeck was complete and Kinski was able to have his nervous breakdown in peace. The speed with which the film was completed has to be admired and shows an economy of filmmaking from Herzog which has remained unrepeated. To add yet more exhaustion and trauma to the characterisation of Woyzeck Herzog insisted on extremely long unbroken takes - there are in fact only 27 cuts in the whole movie! While this was undoubtedly a major challenge to the actors, it enabled Kinski to probably give the greatest performance of his career.

The film was shot in the beautiful town of Telc in what is now the Czech Republic and Herzog opens the film with a series of atmospheric aerial establishing shots giving us an effective spatial metaphor, offering as it does, the vision of an insular and restricted environment which will be reflected in the fears and paranoia of Woyzeck. What follows is a brutal title sequence illustrating an example of the physical torment Woyzeck endures. In speeded up motion the soldier is forced to perform a variety of bruising training activities all the while being kicked around for his trouble by a superior. The image of Woyzeck crawling on the floor with his rifle towards the camera with the ever present boot of his military master in shot illustrates in seconds the predicament the character is in. The agonized and glazed expression of Kinski in this sequence is ample evidence of the extent to which he was willing to put himself on the line for this role. Few films have started in such an unremitting and sadistic fashion, and there is little let up in the 80 minutes to follow.

Woyzeck finds himself exploited and manipulated from all sides - he is a personal assistant to a Captain (Wolfgang Reichman) whose major preoccupation is saving time, but who nevertheless recognises that Woyzeck is philosophical if lacking in morals. The Captain treats him as a curiosity and the Doctor (Willy Semmelroge) takes that a step further by treating him like a freak. Forcing him to diet only on peas for sixth months, the Doctor treats Woyzeck like a guinea pig, and views him as a lower form of life that exists purely to illustrate his own insane and sadistic theories. Woyzeck has no relief from his wife (Eva Mattes) who dissatisfied and repulsed by his lack of masculinity and his burgeoning mental fragmentation embarks on an affair with a burly drum major (Josef Bierbichler). Its little wonder that Woyzeck begins to crack up with such pressures building up around him. Herzog’s frame constricts the action offering no escape, and even when Woyzeck is out in the open fields he can hear disturbing noises coming from inside the earth, or on the other side of the river. Kinski is so intense here that we are almost seeing the man behind the role unravelling in front of us. Instead of offering a sense of community and camaraderie the German army is a place of soulless desolation. The news of his wife’s affair is the catalyst that finally tips Woyzeck over the edge, and a film which has largely been visually minimalistic slips into high stylisation when Woyzeck commits murder. Quite rightly this, along with the title sequence, are the stand out sequences in the entire film. Its an extremely hard slog to get to the end of this film, despite its 80 minute running time, and the episodes of eccentricity that populate the film do not cohere into a satisfying narrative.

If the film succeeds it is due to the strength of the performances. Kinski is simply outstanding as Woyzeck, and special notice must go to Eva Mattes as his frustrated and fearful wife Marie. The rest of the cast is filled out with typically eccentric turns by a variety of capable actors, but every time Kinski is in front the camera the film comes to life. In terms of direction this has to be rated as one of Herzog’s most unobtrusive films. The long takes afford the actors the opportunity to explore space, rather than a sense of space being created in the editing suite, and when it succeeds (it must be noted that some scenes simply don’t) the results are impressive. As a performance piece this is certainly one of Herzog’s greatest films, but from the perspective of direction one cant help feeling this is lesser Herzog.


  1. Terrific review. This film looks intense.

    I've been meaning to check out some more Herzog films lately and you've just reminded me of his vast career. I'll have to do some poking around here!

  2. Thanks for the compliment Becky, it is most appreciated :-) - this film is well worth a look, but like most Herzog films, it is something of a slog in places.

  3. steve prefontaine20 February 2014 at 00:39

    As soon as the geezer drops the cat out of the window it immediately alienates British and American audiences, that cannot deal with scenes depicting any kind of cruelty to animals.


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