Stroszek (1977)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Bruno S., Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz
Extras: Commentary Track, Theatrical Trailer

"Burden of Dreams" may have been the title to the 1982 documentary about German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s journey into the Amazon to shoot his epic adventure "Fitzcarraldo, " but the moniker also handily applies to the misfit protagonist of Herzog’s 1977 character study "Stroszek." One of Herzog’s more accessible films and one with no small amount of charm to temper his characteristic "sturm und drang, " "Stroszek" returns via another exemplary Anchor Bay DVD edition. With a sharp transfer, clean audio and a fascinating, thoughtful <$commentary,commentary track> by Mr. H himself, I found myself thoroughly immersed in the tribulations of a dreamer unable to cope with the burden of his vision. After having been weaned on such substantial Herzog labors as "Nosferatu," "Woyzeck" and "Fitzcarraldo," the comedic aspects of "Stroszek" almost qualify the film as a dark gray (as opposed to black) comedy. Almost.

Bruno S. plays Bruno Stroszek, a misfit thrust into the world after just being released from prison. Having spent most of his adult life in mental institutions, Bruno finds reality a difficult milieu to ease into. He holds impromptu concerts with his accordion and glockenspiel in apartment courtyards, mostly to disinterested tenants. With the slightly doddering landlord Herr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) and the gentle prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes), Bruno struggles to find a way to fit into a society that really would rather ignore his existence. When Eva’s vicious pimp (an extremely effective Wilhelm von Homburg, best recognized as the malevolent Vigo from "Ghostbusters II") beats up Eva once too often, the misfit trio band together and journey to America. The land of opportunity that they only knew from American movies turns out to be far more hostile than they anticipated…

Starting from the casting, Herzog’s goal with this story is to demonstrate from every conceivable angle the blurred line between interior fantasy and reality. From Herzog’s, and consequently the viewer’s, perspective, Bruno S. is Bruno Stroszek. Herzog wrote the script especially for him and drew freely from the real Bruno’s circumstances, which include being institutionalized for over twenty years. While I doubt there is a correlation other than name, Eva Mattes plays Eva the compassionate but powerless streetwalker, Clemens Scheitz plays the slightly daft landlord Scheitz, and so on. In the Wisconsin scenes, Herzog hired real mechanics to play mechanics and coached his American and German actors in such a way so that the language bewilderment that the characters face in the movie appears genuine, with the camera only as impartial observer. What Herzog accomplishes here, strangely enough, is to aesthetically manage his resources (actors, settings, props) rather than direct or manipulate them. The result is a narrative composed of observed moments that are frighteningly immediate (any scene with the Prince of Hamburg), comically weird (Bruno’s interaction with his American "buddies") or inexplicably poignant. Of the latter, I have only to point to the scene where Bruno confides his frustrations with the outside world to the infirmary doctor who doubles as a pediatrician at the local hospital’s maternity ward. After their "scripted" moments, Herzog points the camera at the doctor demonstrating to Bruno the grip reflex of a newborn child. Watching a new life clinging to giant index fingers with their tiny digits and especially seeing how the doctor gently caressed them to sleep with just a whisper, I burst into tears the first time I watched the scene and, even after two more viewings with the same response, I’m still not sure why. (From the commentary, Herzog reveals that the doctor is in fact an actual pediatrician. He was so amazed at the doctor’s gift for handling babies, he simply let the camera roll on what he does for a living.)

Where the comedic mixes with the bizarre materializes mostly in the American scenes. Bruno, Eva and Herr Scheitz settle in Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, home to a distant relative of Scheitz. "Distant" applies in every sense of the word, as the intrepid trio must not only contend with their limited or non-existent knowledge of English, but juggle the trappings of American society – bills, mortgage, the attainment of creature comforts – with the yearnings of freedom that fueled their flight from Germany. Herzog does not make any judgments about the characters’ illusions, delusions or lack of coping mechanisms, which some of their situations all the more squeamish. When Bruno screams his disenchantment with the American dream in German in front of his American co-workers, they respond by chiding how they’re going to steal his girlfriend right in front of him. The final scenes, where Bruno’s plight comes to an absurd head, surreally juxtapose the organic with the mechanical. To be an outsider absorbed with Americana (one of Stroszek’s bunkmates at the asylum wears a Stetson and has "Bonanza" posters plastered on the wall) is to potentially find oneself burdened, like Bruno, in the great American nightmare. Well, I said it was a dark gray comedy.

The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> transfer exhibits some film grain early on, but settles into a consistently crisp image with stark colors and sharp detail delineation. Fleshtones look natural to a fault and even though the hue saturation leans more towards the gritty side, the bold reds of Bruno’s apartment staircase and door showed no <$chroma,chroma noise>. With excellent contrast control and deep blacks, details can be discerned in the shadows. Despite a few flecks and nicks, the source material looks exceptionally clean. Digital or compression artifacts are not present.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono audio plays clean with minimal distortion, but also with limited fidelity. Hiss is evident throughout the presentation, but it never rises above a slightly detectable presence.

The disc’s only extras consist of the Herzog <$commentary,commentary track>, the American theatrical trailer and liner notes on Herzog and the production. Moderated by Norman Hill, Herzog’s <$commentary,commentary track> unfolds as a series of questions and answers according to the action on screen. Not his first commentary, Herzog comes across quite at ease with the process and responds to Norman’s questions without hesitation or fumbling. Herzog explains in detail the casting process, how the project came about and how in blurring the reality of the actor with the character they’re playing, how he hoped to capture on film what he calls "ecstatic truths." Much of my enjoyment of the film came from listening to Herzog describe how the real Bruno S. matched the fictional Stroszek or how the "Prince of Hamburg" (Wilhelm von Homburg) almost beat up a sports journalist on live TV over some bad questions.

The theatrical trailer, presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, emphasizes the absurdist elements of the movie. Mark Wickum’s extensive notes on Herzog and the production go beyond the usual filmography listings with an errant comment or two. Wickum liberally infuses critical analysis of the film and Herzog’s other works, along with appropriate and many times telling quotes from Herzog himself.

As DVD allows consumers to become virtual historians of their favorite filmmakers and stars, Anchor Bay’s guardianship of the films of Werner Herzog is reason enough to rejoice. "Stroszek" on DVD pleases on all levels: artistically, technically and aesthetically.