Werner Herzog began Woyzeck within a week of shooting Nosferatu, phantom der nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979) in Moravia with the same crew.1 It is tempting to read the pair as complementary masterpieces. One was an international co-production with European stars, ultimately derived from a widely read, much adapted Anglo-Irish novel that had long infected many reaches of popular culture; the other was a faithful adaptation of an unfinished German play2, that even today has struggled to impose a reputation outside Germany, hindered by the failure of translators to adequately correlate its uncompromising Hessian dialect. One ranges far and wide over space and time, from placid Dutch interiors to Mexican museums and the uncanny Mittel-European sublime, and features mummies, a centuries old curse, and haunted ruins; the other takes place in and around a military toy town, and stutters to its climax with the seeming inevitability of a Greek tragedy obeying the unities of time and space. One is about a phantom of the night; the other leads to a murder in vivid daylight. One focuses on a monstrous, aristocratic predator who threatens to destroy a progressive bourgeois society; the other is a mentally ill proletarian who is beaten, betrayed, exploited and humiliated to breaking point. 3

Nosferatu haunts, Woyzeck is haunted. Nosferatu is on-screen for only 17 minutes4, and for many of those he is lost in shadows; Woyzeck is in nearly all of his film’s 27 scenes, and frequently lunges in and out of the frame, along and towards the picture plane, staring out at something beyond the frame, and at least twice at the viewer. Nosferatu grounds a fantasy text in ‘realities’ of setting, set decoration, costume and ethnography; Woyzeck, after a play written by a scientist, based on a medical report of a real-life murder, and often cited as a forerunner of realism and naturalism5, invokes folklore, opera, toys, fairgrounds and the supernatural to undermine an oppressive reality. And so on.

Yet this being Werner Herzog, such cut-and-dry dialectics are neither cut nor dry. In both films, the locus is the body: bodies wounded and wounding, threatened and threatening. Most of Klaus Kinski’s performances are among the most memorable in cinema, but he surpasses himself in this ‘diptych’, playing the legendary bloodsucker with fragility and an unbearable erotic timidity; his Woyzeck, the ‘worm-that-turned’, may be marginalised in the world he lives in, but Kinski agitates his narrative with a restless throb.

A second viewing of Woyzeck, or a prior knowledge of the play – which could easily derive from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1922/1925), one of the most important and most often revived twentieth century operas; of previous East German or Iranian films6; of canonical performances in Germany and regular stagings abroad; or in the many editions issued by ‘classic literature’ imprints – might prompt the viewer to assume Herzog’s opening sequence as glibly ironic, even sarcastic. A music box-style celeste plays Beethoven over placid images of a lake and the picturesque Czechoslovak town on its banks .7 These are seemingly empty, peaceful spaces that will soon be filled with violence. Various thematic oppositions are set up with this sequence, most obviously that between nature and civilisation. Woyzeck, bound by his tight uniform, and torn apart by the ‘civilising’ apparatus of Family, Military and Science, will burst into madness and murder.

As such, Woyzeck is one of a long line of Herzog anti-Enlightenment anti-heroes, bodies propelled by unreason against an oppressive petite bourgeoisie. What is perhaps more interesting here, however, is how Herzog stages this skirmish. Although a devoted student of German Expressionist cinema – Nosferatu, of course, was partly a remake of and partly a response to the archetypal Expressionist film, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), while The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das cabinet des Dr Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) is the major cinematic intertext of Woyzeck – Herzog does not opt for a predictable Expressionistic treatment of his theme, whereby formal excess (of music, lighting, camera movement, etc.) would match the hysteria of characters and narrative. Right up to the murder sequence, Woyzeck is arguably the most ‘classical’ of Herzog’s films, with long takes of two-three minutes filmed in frontal mid-shot, the camera moving with characters or their vantage point, soon returning to relative visual stability.

It soon becomes apparent that this formal placidity is a prison, a visual correlative to the social and mental prisons Woyzeck struggles to escape. Take the opening scene after the prologue and credits, where Woyzeck shaves the bullying and teasing Captain (Josef Bierbichler). His manic arm movements when standing still, and his pacing as he moves back and forth around the shallow, cluttered perspective box, rattles the viewer as much as it does his superior. Woyzeck’s ‘protest’ is neither conscious nor premeditated; it is diverted into his body, which ‘thinks’ or ‘protests’ for him. Herzog would hate the comparison, but in a classic, even clichéd Freudian analysis, the consciously repressed in Woyzeck – and that of the society oppressing him – is returned violently in the body.

Kinski’s unnerving performance is matched by Herzog’s initially unassuming violation of his ‘classical’ base: point-of-view shots in which the viewing position has been vacated; flat, static framings that literally freeze the drama and turn it onto – against – the viewer; compositions that distort space and scale so that characters who seem close to each other are shown to be removed and, more unsettlingly, vice versa. The croaks and scratches of the near tuneless folk music abrade the harmonies implied by passages of serene classical music. These procedures, often unnoticed on a first viewing, create a gradual breaking down of coherent form, and prepare the viewer for the ‘convulsive’ murder. A murder staged as a sublime, ecstatic, time-shattering catharsis, only to descend – in the true Herzog manner – into bathos, undermining any of the facile, ‘Romantic’, individualistic, anti-establishment conclusions we have been encouraged to draw.

In his celebrated book of interviews with Herzog, Paul Cronin pronounced Woyzeck ‘a tremendously inventive piece of cinema’, and probably his favourite of Herzog’s features.8 Often overshadowed by some of his flashier or more notorious epics, there is a case to be made with Cronin that Woyzeck, this rich, mercurial, provincial film, might just be Herzog’s masterpiece.

 

Woyzeck (1979 West Germany 79 minutes)

Prod Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF) Dir: Werner Herzog Scr: Werner Herzog, from the drama-fragment by Georg Büchner Phot: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein Ed: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus Set des: Henning von Gierke

Cast: Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes

 

Endnotes

  1. Paul Cronin, ed., Herzog on Herzog, (London: Faber & Faber, 2002), p. 159.
  2. Georg Büchner left four unfinished manuscripts of Woyzeck at his death in 1837; scholars continue to debate the exact order of surviving scenes. See: Victor Price, “A Note on the Historical Woyzeck and Büchner’s Design for the Play”, in Büchner, Danton’s death, Leonce and Lena, Woyzeck (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, edition first published in 1971), pp. 133-136.
  3. Victor Price calls Woyzeck “the first working-class tragedy”. Price, “Introduction”, in Büchner, p. xviii.
  4. Cronin, p. 158.
  5. Price, ‘A Note’ and ‘Introduction’, in Büchner, pp. 133-134, xviii.
  6. Woyzeck (Rudolf Noelte, 1966) and The Postman (Postchi, Dariush Mehrjui, 1972, and exhibited in West Germany that year)
  7. Telč standing in for an unnamed town in Hesse, Germany.
  8. Cronin, p. 161.