In a barren courtyard, seemingly untouched by human life, a soldier appears. He’s in a frenzy, running with his rifle. All around him are bleak buildings, their sickly green color nearly matching his washed out uniform. An unnamed authority figure running alongside him screams orders. The soldier stops, jogs in place, then drops to the ground to do push-ups. His name is Woyzeck. He’s an army barber, low ranking, faceless. For extra money, he’s volunteered to take part in a psychiatric experiment.
As he performs his mundane exercises, he scowls at the camera. His eyes are filled with hate. Does he hate himself? Does he hate the army? Does he hate us, the viewers?
That Woyzeck is played by Klaus Kinski tips us off. Things won’t go well for this soldier, or the people around him. Owning one of the most distinctive faces in the history of cinema, Kinski looks demonic even when he’s playing a dunce. Woyzek is married with an infant son; he comes home from his duties looking hunched and apologetic, a hobbled husband trying to make ends meet. As played by Kinski, Woyzeck is a gargoyle on the brink of madness. Under the spell of a local doctor who has gleefully promised to put him in a “nuthouse,” he’s verging on insanity from the moment we see him; we can’t imagine what this poor man might have been like before.
That is what makes Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979) such a brave and challenging movie. Using Georg Büchner’s unfinished play from 1837 as his source material, Herzog declares his intentions early by focusing on Kinski’s bizarre mien. According to an interview Herzog gave to journalist Paul Cronin, Kinski had actually fallen down on the hard cobblestones during the first scene, which caused the side of his face to swell up. Herzog thought fast. He told Kinski, his longtime collaborator and occasional nemesis, “Just look at me.” Kinski obliged. Herzog kept the shot, and used it as the film’s opening. I’m still thinking about the scene several days after seeing it.
Woyzeck’s wife Marie (Eve Mattes) is having an affair with a local drum major, a burly soldier she describes as having “the chest of a bull and the paws of a lion.” He’s everything her husband is not. Woyzeck is fragile, demented. The soldier is practically leaking with confidence. He happily struts for Marie, telling her to imagine him with his white gloves, marching. She looks like she might bite him out of sheer excitement. Marie feels guilty, but she can’t help herself. The scene where Marie dances with the drum major reveals something about women who cheat on their husbands; she shows a joy and abandon that she could never show with her feeble Woyzeck. She even becomes more beautiful. We watch Marie dance with this man who is not her husband and we almost forgive her.
We know that Woyzeck will eventually realize that his wife loves this other man. We know well in advance that someone in Woyzeck’s brittle mental state will wreak a holy hell on someone. It doesn’t matter. The movie’s dismal majesty comes from watching how Woyzeck makes his journey from point A to point B, from browbeaten soldier and cuckold to raging avenger.
Woyzeck was made immediately after Herzog’s Nosferatu, where Kinski played a baldheaded vampire. In order to save money and take advantage of a Slovakian work permit, Herzog and his crew stayed in Slovakia and started shooting Woyzeck as soon as Kinski had grown some hair. Herzog would say years later that Kinski had exhausted himself playing the vampire, which is what helped him seem so vulnerable as Woyzeck. Kinski was often combative with his director in their previous collaborations, but Herzog found Kinski to be very accommodating during the making of Woyzeck. Kinski loved the character, and believed Herzog’s vision for the film was important. Herzog had allegedly considered Bruno Schultz for the role; Schultz would’ve been fine, and perhaps more in line with the traditional interpretation of the character, but certainly not as magnetic or otherworldly as Kinski.
It’s a stunningly beautiful movie. Cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, who had worked with Herzog many times, somehow makes the old buildings and swampy lakes of Moravia look ancient and unhealthy, but remarkable just the same. Kinski is often at the center of the frame, looking every bit as old and mysterious as the sick old derelicts surrounding him, as if he’d emerged from a bog. The film’s nightmarish violin score sounds like noise torn from Woyzeck’s very damaged mind. The film’s 27 scenes, each more intense and bizarre than the last, were filmed over a mere 18 days. What sort of movie could be made in 18 days now?
Herzog once said “there is something in the film that is beyond me. It touches the very golden heights of German culture, and because of this the film sparkles.” I think Kinski is the key. Very few actors have ever come to close to capturing the essence of a person unraveling, but Kinski does so in the way he jitters and mumbles, the way he snaps to attention even when he doesn’t have to, the way he hurries down the street, anxious to get somewhere, but not sure where. Some might say that Kinski is too obvious a choice, and that he wears the film’s climax on his face, while another actor, Shultz for instance, would be more subtle. They might be right. Still, I’d rather watch Kinski, an actor whose emotions seemed to be writhing under his face. He wasn’t just playing to the cheap seats; he acted as if he wanted to be seen from the heavens.
Büchner’s play is one of the landmarks of German literature. It has been produced countless times for stages around the world. According to the IMDB, there are over 40 versions of it made for both feature films and television, the most recent being a 2014 Portuguese production. (A 1972 version from Iran switched the main character from a soldier to a postal worker, long before the term “going postal” came into vogue.) What accounts for the play’s longevity? I’m tempted to say Woyzeck holds a place in German culture similar to the one held in America by Death of a Salesman. But if Death of a Salesman is a mirror of the American way of life, what does Woyzeck say about the German mindset? I can't venture a guess. But the plays, written more than a century apart and on different continents, seem to be related. Both plays feature an infidelity. One story concerns a lowly salesman; the other a lowly soldier. Both are trying to keep a family together. One ends in a suicide; the other ends in a murder. I suspect that no one wants to be Willy Loman, the tragic lead of Salesman, or Woyzeck, but the durability of both plays suggest that these besieged characters must somehow reflect us. Perhaps we watch stories of this nature unfold and think, I may not be exactly like these guys, but I’m not too far away.
In a way, it’s Woyzeck’s jealousy of his wife’s affair that nearly snaps him out of his madness. Of course, it steers him into a new kind of madness, one that involves bloody vengeance, but it’s almost a relief to see him stop being a fool and turn into a man of action. Without a cause to fight for, whether personal or social, how many of us are just like Woyzeck, bumbling along in our drab uniforms, just waiting for the right humiliation to bring us to life?