Let us continue the theme of Herzog, as the freshest film in my mind right now is the unforgettable Stroszek.
I started watching L’Enfant Sauvage by Truffaut, having anticipated it most eagerly… and I turned it off after about 15 minutes because I was disappointed – not angered, no feeling of betrayal… but just let down by a filmmaker whom I usually can trust. There is one thing I always say – I respect nobody, living or dead. Respect is nothing. I think respect is an insult. I offer friendship. And Truffaut is a friend, but not the closest.
Soon after this disappointing visit with Francois, I watched Herzog’s Stoszek, a film that truly is about God’s feral children.
I have an interest in cryptids – creatures that are part of our consciousness, our legends and our history, but have never been proven to exist. Of course in the last century many have been found to be hoaxes. But there are also some which remain spellbinding unsolvable mysteries. Feral children are a sort of cryptid. Though their origins are often determinable, we can never find the answer for why they were subjected to such suffering. A feral child is not just what we like to think of as Romulus or Remus, not just a babe raised by wolves representing the brotherhood (or motherhood) of man and animal but also a child that has been kept from having any kind of contact with the world – a child shackled in a basement is also a feral child.
Bruno S. plays the title role of Bruno Stroszek, and this non-actor’s life story is a fascinating one. Any biography of him will tell you he was the unwanted child of a prostitute who was beaten so severely by his mother as to incur temporary deafness, that he was in and out of different orphanages and institutions for much of his early life – institutions that often confined him in solitary. Bruno S. taught himself to play music and to paint, spending much of his adult life playing accordion, bugle and glockenspiel in German courtyards. In fact, upon seeing a documentary about him called Bruno der Schwarze – Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn, Herzog cast him to play one very well known feral child, the mysterious Kaspar Hauser. After The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog wrote Stroszek for Bruno S. in just a few days.
You can take the boy out of the basement but you can’t take the basement out of the boy.
In Stroszek Bruno S. plays himself through the lens of Herzog’s ecstatic truth. He is the hero of this wistful ballad, a wandering minstrel of sorts. The film starts in Berlin as Bruno Stroszek is released from jail, and ends in the fictional town of Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, where he ends up after chasing the hope of a better life together with his fickle companion Eva and elderly friend Scheitz. he finds that Wisconsin’s open spaces oppress him more than the bleakness and claustrophobia of Berlin did. Or could it just be that he came to the wrong place and at the wrong time? Or could it be that there was no other way for him?
The journey Bruno takes in search of a better, more comfortable life sees him either losing or having to abandon everything that makes him who he is. His grand piano, which he so affectionately calls “My Black Friend” stays in Berlin as he goes overseas. His pet bird (again a talking black bird in a white cage, as in Nobody Wants to Play with Me) is confiscated in customs, his well worn German clothes are replaced by Midwestern flannel coats and cowboy hat, and Eva, the person he considers himself closest to, abandons him for a truck driver, taking off for Canada. Soon he loses everything else, including his house, because he can’t adapt to the American principle of making money to pay off his house, his refrigerator, and his television. In a scene that takes place after the visit of a man from the bank, Bruno miserably compares life under the Nazis to life in this land of Freedom… this isn’t an indictment of America, it’s a lament of the fact that man is really not free anywhere, and there’s no way he can find freedom within any kind of societal structure.
Eventually, stripped of everything, Bruno is a cornered animal with nowhere left to turn. And so he takes one final journey to nowhere, above.
Stroszek is a celebration of the damaged soul, and an elegy to true freedom. It mourns the American Myth. I came to the US at the age of seven, I wasn’t born here, and so for me, that Myth is much bigger than for the sons of sons of forgotten pioneers. Although after coming to America Bruno feels like he’s losing the identity he used to have, and thus losing the battle of life… it is a battle that must be fought. Yes, I’m sure that it is only on the field that one comprehends the true absurdity of war – but in the face of that absurdity, no one has the option of marching backwards.