Note: This film guide is part of a collection of film guides on history, politics, and war.
Born Werner Stipetic 1942. Attended classical Gynasium in Munich, graduated 1961. Attended University of Munich and Duchesne (Pittsburgh) in early 1960s. Script writer in early 1960s. First film in revolutionary year of 1968. Wins prizes for his first film "Signs of Life" (1968). Produces, directs and writes screenplays for most of his films. Interest in "grotesque" (dwarves, vampires, men driven by inner visions, strange looking actors like Kinski), influenced by German expressionism of 1910s and 1920s, individuals trapped in absurd situations by uncaring universe. Critic Rodney Farnsworth observes:
"Grotesque" presents itself as a useful term to define Herzog's work. His use of an actor like Klaus Kinski, whose singularly ugly face is sublimated by Herzog's camera, can best be described by such a term. Persons with physical defects like deafness, and blindness, and dwarfs are given a kind of grandeur in Herzog's artistic vision. Herzog, as a contemporary German living in the shadow of remembered Nazi atrocities, demonstrates a penchant for probing the darker aspects of human behaviour. His characters run the gamut from a harmlessly insane man (played by a mentally-ill actor) who is murdered for no apparent reason, to a Spanish conquistador lusting after gold, power, and blood. Herzog's vision renders the ugly and horrible sublime, while the beautiful is omitted or destroyed. (The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Volume 2. Directors/Filmmakers, ed. Christopher Lyon (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 256.)
Films: "Lebenzeichen" (Signs of Life) (1968); "Even Dwarfs Started Small" (1970); "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972); "The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser" (1974); "Stroszek" (1977); "Woyzeck" (1979); "Nosferatu the Vampire" (1979); "Fitzcarraldo" (1982).
GB born in 1813 in Goddelau in German Duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt into a medical family. Much influenced by plays and poetry of Goethe and Shakespeare. Schoolmates used to go to beech forest near Darmstadt in summer afternoons to read Shakespeare. Influenced by republican ideas of Fr Rev - GB and friend used to refer to each other as "citoyen" and at school speech day GB gave a speech praising Cato's suicide as opposition to Julius Caesar's tyranny:
The Roman knew only one kind of freedom, freedom under the law, to which he freely submitted himself, recognizing its necessity. Caesar had destroyed this freedom; Cato would have been a slave if he had submitted to the law of despotism. And even though Rome was no longer worthy of freedom, freedom itself was worth Cato's living and dying for it. (quoted in Price, p. viii).
In 1831 GB enrolled in medical faculty of University of Strasbourg, city radicalised by Fr Rev. Autumn he arrived demonstration in support of Polish general Ramorino one of leaders of unsuccessful Nov 1830 uprising against Russian control (Partititon of Poland, nationalist movement in opposition to Metternich system). GB became engaged to Minna Jaegle, daughter of radical liberal clergyman. Moved to University of Giessen in order to be able to qualify to practice in his own country. GB reacted against the political conservatism after the liberalism of Strasbourg. Example of his radical political views from letter:
The political circumstances are enough to drive me mad. The wretched people patiently pull the cart on which the princes and (conservative) liberals play their monkey tricks. Every evening I pray for hemp (rope) and lanterns (from which to hang the princes). (Price, p. ix).
Founded "Socieity of Human Rights" to agitate for reforms. Wrote subversive political pamphlet "Der Hessische Landbote" in 1834 with call for "Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!" Less interested in traditional political freedoms of liberals (freedom of press, unification of German states) but heavy taxation of ordinary people to maintain parasitic court and state apparatus. Grand Duke of Hesse described as the head of a leech, ministers are the teeth, bureaucrat the tail. Restricted electoral laws called a perpetual violation of rights of Germans. Admired democracy of USA and federalism of Switzerland. Object of suspicion by police. GB avoided arrest and imprisonment but his associates in Society did not - caught smuggling copies of GB's pamphlet. Returned to Darmstadt. Studied history of the Fr Rev which resulted in first play "Danton's Death" (1835). Often referred to as "the best first play ever written". Opportunity for GB to discuss conflict between moderation and extremism, corruption of power during Terror. Fear of arrest led him to Strasbourg once again where he wrote "Lenz" and "Leonce and Lena" (1836). Translated Victor Hugo. Wrote dissertation on the nervous system of fish for which he received a doctorate from University of Zürich, where he also lectured. Promising career as scientist and poltical radical. Wrote draft of "Woyzeck" in 1836-7. Never completed and never performed in GB's lifetime. Died of typhus in Feb 1837 at age of 23.
"W" is based on a true case of an ex-soldier, Johann Christian Woyzeck, who lost his parents as a child, wondered around Germany unemployed in tumultuous and revolutionary 1790s. Became a soldier, captured by Swedes, entered Swedish army, returned to Germany and disbanded by French, joined Mecklenburg army, deserted to Swedes (because of Swedish mistress who had a child). Congress of Vienna gave Swedish Pomerania to Prussia, W's regiment handed over to Prussian army. W dembolised, went to Leipzig to look for work. Worked as hairdresser but unable to make ends meet. Tried to reenlist but refused because papers were not in order. Had an affair with daughter of surgeon who liked soldiers. In a fit of jealousy W stabbed her to death in 1821. W suffered from drunkenness and sense of humiliation after his difficult life. Publicly executed in Leipzig in 1824.
Opportunity for GB to examine what in human being enables them to lie, murder and steal. Victim of fate, material need and the hearing of "voices". Self-control vs nature's call. The complacency of the middle class is attacked (the Doctor and the Captain) - gulf between educated and uneducated classes, anti-militaristic theme (picked up in 1947 film version) - a soldier "lowest form of animal life" (p. 112); the first apprentice says "Wherewithal the soldier, had He (God) not armed him with the need for self-destruction?" (p. 122). Theme of injustice and "revolt" against oppressive Metternichian restoration. First "working class tragedy" where WC treated seriously. First case of dramatisation of clinical psychosis (hallucinations, disorientation, paranoia). Drama of social protest in words of critic Maurice Benn:
Woyzeck is not, as the majority of citics maintain, a tragedy of primitive passion or metaphysical suffering in which social circumstances are more or less irrelevant. It is a tragedy of human feeling in a world of social oppression, and the humanity and the oppression are alike integral to it. (Benn, p. 252).
Klaus Kinski plays W; Eva Mattes plays Marie. Other characters: the Doctor, the Captain, the Drum Major. Filmed in Czechoslavakia. Very faithful to 27 short scenes of GB's incomplete play. WH shows us a tormented W, in private tormented by visions of the apocalypse, in public by the injustice of social and sexual oppression. Kinski extraordinary performance of "a proletarian King Lear" (Time Out, p. 665). Parable on social oppression and dormant rebellion.
Story of a soldier who kills his unfaithful mistress, Marie, who has borne his child. W is driven to kill her by a combination of forces: hearing voices coming up from the ground, the intolerable treatment he receives from his superiors in the army, his participation in a medical experiment (for which he earns money) to determine the effects of eating nothing but peas. Critic Brigitte Peucker asks whether (W)
is he a visionary whose visions horrify him because he is too alienated from nature to derive solace from them, or is he a victim of brutality and malnutrition? Büchner does not exclude any of these explanations and neither does Herzog. ("In Quest of the Sublime," in New German Filmmakers: From Oberhausen through the 1970s, ed. Klaus Phillips (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984), pp. 190-2.)