German director Werner Herzog believes in the "voodoo" of a location, meaning audiences sense when there's something about a genuine location that can't be replicated. It's why he led his crew hundreds of miles into the jungles of South America to push a large boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo (1982) and used local natives as extras.
In Stroszek (1977), while he doesn't go to such extremes, Herzog once again relies on authentic locations and non-professional actors to create a movie simultaneously grim and bizarre. Whether in the rundown slums of Berlin or cold, rustic Wisconsin, the film's settings are real, and while undeniably sad and bleak, Stroszek captures several surreal and funny moments as its character grow distant from each other.
Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) has just been released from a rehabilitation house in Berlin after his alcoholism got him into trouble with the law. Outside, he goes back to playing instruments in the street and makes friends with prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes). To escape her violent pimps, the two, along with Bruno's neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), decide to move to Wisconsin. Scheitz's nephew is a mechanic there and promised jobs and a place to live. But even in America, there is no escape from hardship, and hopes for a better life become dim.
I don't usually discuss the DVD box art, but I think it's warranted. Instead of Bruno, the cover depicts the Native American mechanic's helper (Ely Rodriguez), who works for the nephew. We see him on the cover holding a little American flag, and in the film, he doesn't do or say much. Why include him? To serve as a historical and cultural reminder. Bruno, Eve and Scheitz come to America hoping to improve their lot in life, as many Europeans have over the centuries. But there was a problem; the land already had tenants, Indians. Most tribes were wiped out or assimilated as America came to be. To fulfill their goals, the colonists, immigrants, and settlers destroyed an entire civilization, and this mechanic's helper is a reminder that despite promises to the contrary, not everything is harmonious and beneficial. People get hurt, and not everyone reaps the rewards of prosperity.
Bruno's first disappointment with the country occurs when his beloved pet bird Beo is confiscated by customs (off screen). Instead of being open and promising, his new home is already restrictive. In another, more humorous set piece, he witnesses two farmers wielding rifles as they pass each other while riding tractors because they both staked claims on a slice of land. Even the land itself is a letdown for Bruno. While not as crowded or dirty as Berlin, Wisconsin is just as cold and alienating. The land is flat, and there are not many people around. Worse, only Eva is bilingual, the language divide yet another isolating factor.
All this precludes what finally drives the main three character apart: the threat of losing their home. Bills pile up, their jobs don't pay enough, and the bank threatens to re-possess the trailer. Hard-working as they may be, they can't keep up. The bank employee tries to be helpful and is overly polite, but he's got a job to do. In perhaps my favorite shot, after the trailer is auctioned off to the public, we see Bruno, alone and small in the foreground from a slight high angle as the home is taken away. All this is one unbroken take as the full frame gradually empties.
However, the characters aren't blameless. While they start out fairly happy in America, their troubles cause strain and lead to a lack of communication. Bruno descends further into beer drinking, Scheitz becomes paranoid and delusional, and Eva, working as a waitress, starts seeing the truckers she serves as her ticket out of an overwhelming mortgage. Bruno, a man of little ambition or vision, doesn't seem to realize or care. He accepts everything that happens as just another day and really doesn't do much to advance himself.
Not everything is bleak. There is a degree of nuttiness. Believing the loss of the trailer is a conspiracy, Scheitz takes a shotgun and drags along Bruno to rob the bank, but it's closed. So, they rob a nearby barber shop for about $15. Bruno buys a frozen turkey, but Scheitz is arrested, so Bruno carries the turkey and shotgun. Later, at an Indian casino, Bruno finds several animals performing weird tricks: a piano-playing chicken, dancing duck and riding rabbit. I'm not sure how to describe that sequence except strange and dream like.
Strange and sad are probably the best descriptions for the movie. Herzog has always valued authenticity even when events come out of left field. Stroszek shows how people come to America hoping for a better life, but they don't achieve the American dream because the country isn't the utopia they're promised and their own nature.