German musician Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) is being released from prison after a couple of years of his sentence. He collects his belongings, which include an accordion and a horn, and goes to say goodbye to his cellmates, who send him off, one by giving him a tiny paper ship and the other lights a celebratory fart. A meeting with the prison governor is last, and he tells Bruno that he doesn't want to see him back there ever again, so he must not drink alcohol - not one drop must pass his lips or he will get into trouble once more. So the first thing Bruno does on the outside is head straight for a bar; there he sees his old friend Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute who is being given a hard time by her pimps. Will Bruno come to her rescue?
Stroszek, written by its director Werner Herzog, became notorious for being the film that Ian Curtis of Joy Division watched on the night he committed suicide. While the story is undeniably bleak, it is not without its lighter side, which is mostly due to the efforts of its star, Bruno S, for whom the work was specially written after Herzog decided not to use him in Woyzeck. Already the lead actor in Herzog's The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, he hadn't altered his approach to play the equally unfortunate Stroszek, and his almost comically self-composed seriousness makes him very endearing to watch, so that by the end, when the tragic circumstances he finds himself in have proved impossible to escape, he can't quite shake off the ridiculousness of his persona. It's very much a film of two differing moods.
Bruno's elderly friend Herr Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) has kept his apartment (and his Mynah bird) for him, so the newly released convict offers Eva a place at his home (actually Bruno S.'s apartment), which features many musical instruments including a not entirely in tune grand piano. Alas, the pimps are out to make Eva's life a misery, and hound her around the streets of Berlin, eventually making Bruno's life a misery as well - one of the many bizarre scenes has him abused by the pimps who make him kneel on the piano and balance bells on him. Naturally, the misfit trio start dreaming of a better life elsewhere, and draw up a plan of escape. They will go to the United States of America, and live out the American dream of finding their fortune there.
At first, when they arrive in New York, everyting looks like it will go well (only the Mynah bird is prevented from entering the country). They go to the top of the Empire State Building where Bruno triumphantly blows his horn. However, they don't stay there and instead head to the middle of nowhere and a small town called Railroad Flats, where Bruno gets a job as a mechanic and Eva one as a waitress. No montage of the three of them sauntering through the glitzy streets of New York here, in fact it turns out that after a while (and after they have rented their own home) the bright lights of America are pretty much nonexistent where they have settled, although the strangeness of ordinary life is never skipped over.
Despite a stretch where it appears they have found peace, making friends and getting their own television, it doesn't last long. Herr Scheitz may spend his days measuring "animal magnetism", but the real world is catching up and the bank sends an employee round to warn them they are falling behind in their payments. What follows has a horrible inevitability with Herzog at his least forgiving as it becomes clear that the immigrants are no better off in America than in Germany. And yet, the absurd humour never leaves the film, as Bruno and Herr Scheitz, now abandoned by Eva, attempt to rob the bank only to arrive there when it's closed and rob the barber's next door in their desperation. They then rush across the street to the supermarket and buy a useless frozen turkey. The final sequence shows Bruno literally going round in circles, as much trapped by life as the performing animals in the nearby sideshow, a wretched and ludicrous man. You will feel sorry for him, but the tone can unsettle you.
[On Anchor Bay's DVD there are extras which include a trailer, a Herzog filmography and biography and most valuable of all, a commentary with the director - essential listening.]
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.