Herzog showed great courage in composing a film almost entirely of lingering static shots where the main players and action frequently moves off camera or into the camera. I have spoken before about Herzog’s manipulation of the viewer, how he uses the camera to assimilate the viewer into the crowd in Aguirre: Wrath of God for example, and here he is foregoing the possibility of doing this. Herzog is reliant upon the abilities of the players to provide sustained and forceful performances (most of the scenes are single-shot takes of four minutes or more) which compensate for the lack of movement or cutting to which the 1979 film audience would have become accustomed. And the performances he required were provided for him in reciprocation for his trust- Eva Mattes as the sultry, conflicted wife and Josef Bierbichler as the unfeeling, solipsistic drum major especially provide solid support for Klaus Kinski (in the title role) to show again the extraordinary depths of torment and emotional angst he is able to convey on-screen.
Friedrich Woyzeck is a simple, well-intentioned soldier of the lowest rank who is bullied, insulted, threatened and pressurised in every aspect of his life. He is weak and preyed upon. In the title sequence, we see him subjected to brutal punishment by a superior officer and- in the context of what follows- this is clearly both unwarranted and habitual. That Herzog chooses to accelerate the footage gives the action a comic edge, we are not to pity Woyzeck too deeply or too soon. Throughout what follows Kinski portrays Woyzeck as a restless bundle of nervous energy, the inner turmoil he suffers from is reflected in his outward uneasiness and lack of control- his inarticulate utterances are empty and profound in equal measure and the sometimes tortuous delivery of them speaks loudly of a man struggling manfully to retain his sanity. There is a proud stoicism played off against a pathetic submissiveness and the contradiction therein echoes the conflict between a man and his nature or is destiny. Watching this is an exhausting and challenging experience as we Kinski draws from within himself a pain which strains every sinew and seems to risk implosion. In the film’s undoubted high-point, the slow-motion murder scene, I genuinely began to fear that the bulging veins in his forehead would fail him, such is the choking intensity with which Kinski responds to the act.
But for all of that, the film still fails to satisfy. I have praised the decision to restrict the action to a single view, but as well as brave it was a self-defeating decision. The film fails to arrest the viewer in a way that Herzog would never have allowed in his more tightly directed pieces. The drab but authentic settings drain the life from the scene with the amount of unbroken screen exposure they receive- to a lesser degree in the outdoor shots and most specifically in the field scene where Woyzeck’s sanity is finally broken.
The other reason may be the script itself. Woyzeck is a famous and traditional German play which addresses many things culturally which do not cross borders easily. Indeed Herzog himself said, I believe, that the film was almost impossible to translate into English. What I read as clunky, unsatisfactory and unrealistic dialogue is, I hope and believe, more intensely profound and poetic in the original form.
And so, for me, this is a bold, but doomed experiment. Herzog has handicapped himself unnecessarily and the result is a sometimes dull and surprisingly unaffecting movie featuring some heavily emotional performances and an excellent score. 6/10