I got this movie in the mail nearly a month and a half ago from Netflix. The first copy that I was sent didn’t even work and so I had to send it back to get a functional copy. By the time a copy that worked came in the mail, I had started school and a new job and didn’t have time to watch movies. I’m a moron for waiting this long to watch such a beautiful and moving film as Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. The lat two movies I watched were sort of disappointing, and leave it to the Germans to provide me one of the most scathing and tragic examinations of the American dream that I have ever seen put to celluloid. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a film with such bleak fatalism and morose undertones, but despite the black-hole of despair that constitutes much of this film, I found myself endlessly intrigued by the simple but elegant tale that Herzog puts forth in this instant classic of a film.

Stroszek is the tale of three German immigrants to the United States in the 1970’s. Bruno Stroszek (Bruno. S) has just been released from prison back onto the streets of Berlin where he continues his career as a street performer. Eva (Eva Mattes) is a prostitute who is bullied and abused by her pimps and finds friendship and affection from the strange but kind Bruno, even as her pimps assault Bruno as well. Their kindly neighbor is moving to America and in order to escape the desolation and abuse they receive on the streets of Berlin, Bruno and Eva decide to go with him. Their point of escape is the equally bleak rural Wisconsin countryside where Bruno and Eva quickly learn that the frozen mid-West is not the magical American wonderland they were expecting and that perhaps things here are as bad if not worse than in Germany.

The only other Werner Herzog film that I can remember watching is his American feature Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale which was a serviceable if flawed Vietnam prisoner of war story. I did not expect the level of artistry that I saw on display in this film. Much like There Will Be Blood, the camera is as integral to the story as any aspect of the plot. We have these long, trailing shots of the mid-West scenery juxtaposed against more mundane tracking shots of our protagonists engaged in fairly simple and boring activities, and it creates this interesting dichotomy between the isolated beauty of the surroundings with the mind-numbing redundancy of our lives. The camera often lingers several seconds after the primary action of a scene has ended to capture the most insignificant of details just to remind us of our small and fleeting roles in the world. It has been ages since I’ve watched a movie that had me examining every aspect of what the director was placing in a scene for every scrap of detail and meaning I could. It was intellectually exhilarating and it lent the film a literary sense of ambition and symbolism.

One of the real draws of the film for me besides the stellar direction and thematic elements of the film was the untapped and natural talent of Bruno S. as the film’s star Bruno Stroszek. I was simply blown away by his performance. There was a fierce naturalism to his portrayal of the down-on-his luck immigrant that transcended performance and entered the realm of inhabiting his character. Were he more attractive, his sheer expressiveness would have made him a perfect candidate for a Fellini picture (who more often chose actors based on their faces than acting ability), yet in this film, despite his unconventional looks, he provides an extraordinarily sympathetic hero for this modern morality tale. His performance is literally like nothing else I’ve ever seen. It lacks any of the pretensions of other film roles (even the best performances have an inherent theatrical artificiality), and it exists on a purely natural level that enters your heart in the way that practically no other performances I can think of have.

If the film has one flaw, it’s the sudden and unexpected shift to surrealism in the film’s final frames. We had a fairly realistic and straight-forward tale for much of the film and in it’s last minutes, it shoots off into strange and heavily symbolic territory. It wasn’t bad and I enjoyed the way it tickled my brain, but it didn’t feel very cohesive with the rest of the film. For fans of foreign cinema, this is a must watch movie. It reminded me a lot of El Norte, a Mexican film I had to watch in high school which also took a similarly pessimistic view of the American dream. This movie is not for everyone as it takes a very deliberate and paced approach to development that some would call slow but I simply call detailed, but I like films that I can categorize as being portrait-esque. I’m glad I finally opened the movie I got from Netflix well over a month ago.

Final Score: A-

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