Thursday favorites: Falling apart in Wisconsin

Hi all. I’d like to use the Thursday slot for talking about a movie I like a whole lot. My favorite movie ever? I don’t know — I could probably find other movies I like “as much” or even “more”. But I will say I think this movie is as good, as fully realized, as it could possibly be. I’m going to talk about the plot some, so if spoilers annoy you you might want to tune out — it seems to me like this movie is not spoilable, as every repeated time I watch it it just seems better than the previous time.

I’m speaking of Werner Herzog’s 1977 feature Stroszek, starring Bruno Schleinstein, Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz, and Clayton Szalpinski — interestingly the characters they play are named Bruno, Eva, Scheitz, and Clayton. This is a cast of outsiders; Mattes is the only professional actor. I’m not sure exactly what to make of this; you’d think a movie starring non-actors would probably suck. But this does not, not at all: the players are completely natural and unself-conscious onscreen; not always graceful but always in character. They inhabit the roles, because they have been typecast — and it is a testament to Herzog’s abilities as a director, that they remain themselves onscreen.

The key thing about the movie is that Herzog is absolutely fascinated by the ways people move and talk. He communicates that fascination to the viewer by showing exactly how his characters move and talk — this sounds pretty banal I guess but you come away from the movie as familiar with Bruno’s mannerisms as if they were your own. What keeps me coming back to watch it again and again, is the familiarity I feel for the people in the film — their troubles concern me as if they were my friends.

And wow, they have troubles. Bruno, Eva and Scheitz are beat up and beat down enough in Berlin that they decide to emigrate to the US, with no assurance of any way to make their living here beyond a letter from Scheitz’ American cousin Clayton vaguely assuring them that life is good in Wisconsin. So they come over, buy a mobile home on credit, and start working and drinking. And gradually (fairly quickly, really) come unglued.

The movie divides into 3 pretty distinctly different sections. The first half, in Berlin, is cramped and claustrophobic, with brightly colored, angular, arresting shots of the city and three characters lost in it. The soundtrack for this portion is provided by Bruno (who was a street musician before and after he was an actor) on his accordion and glockenspiel and a badly out-of-tune piano whom he calls Der Schwartze, his only true friend. The second half is in America, with wide open expanses and a deeply moving soundtrack of Country tunes, mainly repetitive cuts from Chet Atkins’ performance of “The Last Thing on My Mind.” And the third, brief portion is after everything has gone to shit — a cartoonish, slapsticky drive through central Wisconsin looking for a way back to sanity, not finding anything. Here is the brutal final eight minutes of the movie, with soundtrack by Sonny Terry:



(In the spirit of a playlist, City of God might be a really good next movie — the segue from dancing chicken to slaughter yard is if nothing else really striking.)

The Modesto Kid blogs at READIN.

27 responses to “Thursday favorites: Falling apart in Wisconsin”

  1. Dave says:

    I admit I have trouble with Herzog and haven’t seen Stroszek. But I was intrigued that it was apparently what Ian Curtis watched the night he killed himself (on broadcast TV!?!). And this post makes it sound like something I must watch. Well done, Modesto.

  2. Cool, I hope you enjoy it.

    One interesting thing I wanted to mention but did not see how to work into the post, is the genesis of the film: Herzog was in Wisconsing doing research on the life of Ed Gaines, when his car broke down — he took it to Clayton Szalpinski’s shop which is how he met Clayton. A half-hour of chatting with him convinced Herzog he needed to write a movie for Clayton to appear in.

  3. Natasha says:

    Congrats on you first post, TMK! Although I am a movie geek and have seen most of the more recent movies aside from the horror genre (I am a scaredy cat), I don’t know much about the earlier stuff. I am going to send the link to this post to a friend, who has seen it all and might enjoy commenting. How about some recent stuff that could be similar or related to that movie? I can’t watch the video clip, it happens a lot with TGW clips from u-tube, they freeze, I don’t know why.

  4. How about some recent stuff that could be similar or related to that movie?

    I’m in kind of a bind here: I’m a movie geek the opposite way to you, because I’ve seen a lot of older stuff but not so much recent. (I’m a cheapskate — NetFlix enabled me to start watching a lot of movies on the cheap.) There is a point of comparison to the Coen Brothers I think, like specifically Fargo — the very human, warm way the camera picks up its subjects. That sounds very vague because my vocabulary is so limited, sorry. That is the only contemporary movie that springs to mind; and it is not really that much like Stroszek… Maybe I’ll think of some other examples later on.

  5. swells says:

    My experience with Herzog is all due to a certain TGW writer and Herzog aficionado-slash-freak who got me to watch Fitzcarraldo and My Best Fiend–I can’t believe he hasn’t weighed in on this yet–he is the Herzogiest. Amare, your thoughts?

  6. Natasha says:

    I read the synopsis for this. The site also offers similar movies “Stranger than Paradise,” “Down by Law,” and “Class Relations.” I have not seen either one, but according to the synopsis, it seems like it’s very similar to “In Bruges,” my favorite movie of all times: hilarious, sarcastic, and dark, depicting professional killers who have a venerable code of honor, much greater than most “good” people do.

  7. Jane says:

    This is a cast of outsiders; Mattes is the only professional actor. I’m not sure exactly what to make of this; you’d think a movie starring non-actors would probably suck.

    The Italian film industry hit a financial lull in the 1940s after World War II. Because of this, Italian filmmakers, like Vittorio de Sica, started the Neo-Realism movement. They used old, grainy film, shot outside and on location, and used amateur actors, just to save money. If a film’s main character was a painter, for example, the director would cast someone in the painting profession. It brought a natural and realistic feel to their movies, and beautifully captured the hardships of post-war Italy.

    The most famous movie from this movement is The Bicycle Thief. If you like old movies, I highly recommend it. It’s fantastic.

  8. Yeah, I loved The Bicycle Thief. Did not realize when I was watching it that the leads were not actors, though. I’m meaning to watch more neo-realist cinema, that film is about all I have seen.

  9. LP says:

    Stranger than Paradise = brilliant. It’s all awkward pauses and odd little moments. A wonderful, beguiling movie. Favorite line: “I am ze vinner!”, delivered in a thick German accent. I use this whenever possible.

  10. Marleyfan says:

    I’ve got this at the top of my queue, and am excited to see it.

    Here are my favorite films:
    Jean De Florette/Mannon of Spring
    Silence of the Lambs
    Cinema Paradiso
    Finding Forrester
    Love Actually

  11. I’ve got this at the top of my queue, and am excited to see it.

    Excellent — I’d love to hear what you think about it.

  12. Natasha says:

    :) Lisa, you do that too. I quote movies all the time: “Take the gun, leave the Canoli.”
    “Say hello to my little friend!”
    “Make him an offer he cannot refuse.”
    “Don’t you hate the awkward silence?”
    “The Godfather is the father of all wisdom.”
    “Whoever comes up to you with the meeting is the traitor.”
    “It’s like a fucking fairytale or something.”
    “Choose your next words carefully, they might be your last.”
    “Don’t take my kindness for my weakness.”
    “Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?”
    ”I don’t need you to tell me how fucking good my coffee is, okay? I’m the one who buys it. I know how good it is. When Bonnie goes shopping she buys SHIT. I buy the gourmet expensive stuff because when I drink it I want to taste it.”
    “Stay cool honey bunny, stay cool.”
    “I’m Winston Wolfe. I solve problems.”
    “Modern cars – they all look like electric shavers.”
    “Run, Forest, run!”

    I was once reproached by a student for letting the American cinema define my intelligence, hmm…

  13. Tim says:

    Stroszek is way up there for me, but nothing compares to the delights and horrors of Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God. The final scene is just stunning. Thanks for this, TMK!

  14. Jane says:

    12: Your choice in movies is excellent.

    The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, Scarface, Sin City, Forest Gump…

    …and the “fairytale” comment…In Bruges?

  15. Natasha says:

    Wow, Jane, you are awesome! “Fairytale” is from “In Bruges”, “kindness for weakness” is from “Swordfish” and “chose your words..” is from “300”

  16. ruben says:

    Steph, I apologize for being out of the loop of late.

    amare’s workplace suddenly designated tgw as an “audio-video” site and thus worthy of some filtering software that is an absolute pain to navigate. a password will get you in but the comments aren’t getting through as yet.

    i just saw encounters at the end of the world, herzog’s latest, and it’s worth a spot on the queue.

    If you’re going to watch only one-Aguirre, Wrath of God

    If you’re hooked after that-try Fitcarraldo and the accompanying documentary by Les Blanks, Burden of Dreams. The bonus features on Burden should include “Werner Herzog eats his shoe” which documents just that.

    My Best Fiend is my all time favorite documentary of his but Little Dieter Needs to Fly is moving and profound.

    If you’ve waded through any of this and want a bit of fun try Incident at Loch Ness, Werner shows a real sense of humor and awareness of his image in this mockumentary.

    An overlooked gem is The Adventures of Kaspar Hauser-I haven’t seen it in awhile and want to so if anyone is up for a Herzog night soon just let me know.

    Nothing says the holidays like good friends and German misanthropes.

  17. lane says:


    I was ready to get all smart and talk euro movies and stuff and then I read MASK!!

    MASK is one of your faovortie movies!???!!!

    WHY!!! I’m seriously laughing so hard at that i’m crying.

    Mask, you mean the one where eric stoltz wears that wierd . . . mask?

    OK Marlyfan, I’m sure you have your reasons. and I’m getting a hold of myself. I saw that movie as a sophmore in highschool and the friends I was with laughed through the whole thing. It was really weird. As I remember it’s really sad right?

    I had all these weird feelings like my friends shouldn’t be laughing, Like that would be laughing at a mentally handicapped person on the bus. But then, it was also a movie, so it wasn’t a big deal.

    These ladies behind us got really mad.

    Being a sophomore just sucks.

    Oh my god marley, you are from such a sweet family.

  18. lane says:

    I’m really sorry about that, I just sat here and laughed for another two minutes.

    That was SO embarrasing to be with John Holden and Jim West that night.

    They laughed through that whole movie.

    I just read the film’s wikapedia.

    Cher won the best actress at Cannes for it for god sakes.

    16 year old boys are the worst.

  19. ruben says:

    Lane is on fire and is difficult to follow but I wanted to chime in as to other rec’s.

    Harmony Korine wants to be the next Herzog so badly that it grates but he’s worth a shot. Gummo is a guilty pleasure but julien donkey boy makes the hero worship explicit by casting Werner himself.

    Lane, Finding Forrester was the one on that list I found most troubling

  20. Kate the Great says:

    Why do you find it troubling, Ruben? My parents recommended Finding Forrester to me. It sounds like another Dead Poet Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m puzzled as to why you think it’s troubling.

  21. ruben says:

    How can I not sound like a complete crank?

    Um, I have my own issues regarding most uplifting or feel good education related films, so DPS and MHO are on my list as well. Throw in what I can gather of Forrester’s wince inducing racial gloss, cue Sean Connery booming “You de man, Forrester!”, and I’m going to have to sit this one out.

    But please consider the source, your parents are probably right on.

  22. Marleyfan says:

    I found myself thinking about different reasons and justifications to why those films are at the top of my list. I was preparing to defend and justify them, when I realized that I can’t tell actually tell you why they connect with me. I can tell you what I like about them, but just like music or other expressions of art, it is not easy to define why one touches me and another does not. Why does Neil Young connect with me, but Annie DiFranco doesn’t? Why do I find the wit and sarcasm in The West Wing very funny, but get annoyed with the Jim Carrey slapstick comedies? I am certainly glad I didn’t add Jaws to my list, I think I would have been made fun of.

    Lane, I’m sure that as an artist you’ve spent time thinking about these types of questions, and I’d love to hear what you have come up with.

  23. Ruben in 16: I love Aguirre and I think it’s probably a better film than Stroszek, so I guess you’re right that that would be the one if you had to pick. But there is a strongly human element in Stroszek that I don’t see in Aguirre, which is about over-the-top paranoia and grandiosity.

    There is a lot to like about Fitzcarraldo but I find that it drags at points.

    I need to go back and watch Kaspar Hauser again now that I’ve got more of a handle on Bruno — when I watched it before I found it beautiful but utterly mystifying.

    Have you seen the shorts The Great Ecstasy of Sculptor Steiner and How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck…? These are great and I think both of some use in understanding Stroszek. Steiner is a profile of world-champion ski jumper Walter Steiner, Woodchuck is a documentary of the 1976 National Livestock Auctioneering championship.

  24. lane says:


  25. lane says:

    OK, I’m better now.

    Ruben, no, I know Kate’s parents and they are . . . sure right whatever.

    Kate, it’s the SENTIMENTAL thing.

    Marley, you’re just a sweet old softee. And there’s nutin’ wrong wit dat!

  26. amare stoudemire says:


    Your comment about Fitzcarraldo “dragging” at points is my favorite pun in a long time.

    I love The Ecstasy of Sculptor Steiner, the slow motion shots of him literally flying have stuck in my mind. Woodchuck was good but I understand that the disc I saw must have some corrupted audio because it didn’t have Herzog’s narration over much of the doc.

    You might want to (re)watch Kaspar Hauser and then follow it with Truffaut’s Wild Child as they deal with the same theme.

    Over the top paranoia and grandiosity are two human elements I most identify with.


  27. Bruno is still playing his accordion; there’s a review in today’s Times.