THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Among the five films Werner Herzog made with Klaus Kinski, Woyzeck (1979) occupies a unique spot. While the other films (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, and Cobra Verde) qualify as mega productions with numerous locations and, in some cases, outlandish production demands, Woyzeck, based on Georg Buchner's play, was filmed very quickly with few locations on the tail-end of the Nosferatu shoot. The scope of the film also is much more focused: Rather than pulling a steamboat over a mountain or leading an army of African slaves, Kinski's Private Woyzeck is solely concerned with the drama within his own mind. The film presents us just with the bare minimum as far as elements of Woyzeck's life. There is his relationship with Marie (Eva Mattes, who won Best Supporting Actress at Cannes for her work here), his captain, his doctor, and his only friend, Andres. Each of these characters has been at work ruining Woyzeck's mind: The captain condescendingly ridicules him for rushing through life and being too thoughtful, the doctor, as an experiment, has allowed Woyzeck to eat only peas, and Andres, a stupid drone, offers no emotional support. When Woyzeck discovers that Marie has been carrying on with a manly drum major (the film constantly reminds us what REAL men and women are, and Woyzeck does not fit the bill) his psychosis takes him over completely.
Clocking a mere 80 minutes, Woyzeck shows that the famously operatic Herzog does indeed have the ability to rein himself in. Since he makes no real attempt to place Woyzeck's struggles into a larger context, outside of the brief criticisms of authority figures, he doesn't need to make a film of epic length. The production itself is equally sparse. Grim, simple sets create a mood of despair and simple lighting set-ups, with hot-points in the center of the screen, falling off to darkness at the edges, give the impression that we are spying on these lives with a spot-light or through a microscope. Even Kinski's frequent glare directly into the camera lets us know that on some level he knows that we are watching, and he would plead for our sympathy if he still thought we had any. Kinski's performance is complex and layered; No one can truly project the unraveling of a man like he did. His physical abilities are unparalleled. In other films, where plays megalomaniacal rulers, he appears huge, powerful. But here he seems broken, small, slumped. He is easily picked up and swung around by the drum major the same way the doctor swings a cat in an earlier scene.
Woyzeck's mind deteriorates throughout the film and he grows more disturbed and disturbing. Kinski contorts his face and body and really expresses Woyzeck's every emotional turn so that by the violent conclusion, more gruesome for what is not shown than what is, we see that in his mind there was no other choice. Woyzeck may not pack the sweeping punch of Aguirre but it is a worthwhile film, especially for another amazing performance by Kinski.
The picture in Anchor Bay's release is superb. This must have been a difficult film to transfer, given the raw nature of the images, but it works great. The transfer is anamorphic and couldn't be any better.
The audio also has been expertly rendered. The score consists mostly of a bizarre, cacophonous string piece that serves to set the film slightly off-kilter. It feels as disjointed as Woyzeck's mind.
The film is in German with clear English subtitles.
Woyzeck is surprisingly light on the extras. A trailer and talent bios are all that are included. Even though Herzog commentary tracks can usually be expected, none is to be found here. The trailer is fine, but not essential. As always, some Kinski outtakes would be nice.
Other Herzog / Kinski reviews:
Woyzeck is a fascinating film from one of the most unique director-star combinations, especially after viewing some of their grander productions. While the story of a man's mental descent has been told many times, Kinski's raw approach to the character makes this one of the most effective versions.
My Best Fiend
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.
E-mail Gil at email@example.com