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Review: Woyzeck (1979)

Director: Werner Herzog | 77 minutes | drama, crime | Actors: Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes, Wolfgang Reichmann, Willy Semmelrogge, Josef Bierbichler, Paul Burian, Volker Prechtel, Dieter Augustin, Irm Hermann, Wolfgang Bächler, Rosemarie Heinikel, Herbert Fux, Thomas Mettke,

After Herzog and Kinski had just finished shooting their piece of art “Nosferatu”, they decided to stick another project on the same location, Yugoslavia. Georg Büchner, who wrote the play that underpins the film, has always been a great source of inspiration for the director, and now Herzog had the opportunity to make a dream come true by not only using the themes from Büchner’s work, but literally. and immediately to film one of his plays. And the dream actor to portray main character Woyzeck is of course Klaus Kinski. It becomes exhausting to mention this with every collaboration between Kinski and Herzog, but Kinski – whether or not through Herzog’s involvement – takes Herzog’s source material to a higher level here too.

From the moment Kinski’s frightened look comes into the picture, and pain-ridden smile appears on his face, you know as a viewer that this is going to be another extremely fascinating “performance”. But, contrary to what the opening sequence suggests – played at a fast pace, and with a bold humiliation of Woyzeck, who is always crushed during the imprinting – the tone of the story is more tragic and contemplative than ironic or absurdist. Tragic, because Woyzeck is humiliated or treated disrespectfully by everyone around him. Even though glimpses of compassion sometimes seem to seep through the behavior of his fellows. His boss, who has to shave Woyzeck, may say that he has no morals – because his child has not been baptized in the Church – but he does call him a “good person”. This only means little concrete with regard to the possible support he provides to Woyzeck.

When the latter collapses and starts raving, he only notices that this kind of behavior makes him very restless himself. And of course that is not possible. The doctor, whom he has been put on a pea-only diet for unclear reasons, should want to help him, but sees in him only an interesting “case”. Woyzeck does not have to expect much from that. Then his wife, maybe? After all, together with the beautiful Marie (Eva Mattes) he has a sweet little son, and there must be some loyalty from that angle, right? You would say that, but my dear wife is cheating on a tambourine player without looking or blushing. After her first transgression, she actually seems to have some feeling when she bursts into tears and claims to be a bad person. She only then does nothing to disprove that confession. She happily dances on with Mr. Tambourine and, when Woyzeck questions her, casually declares that she would rather get a knife than a touch from her loving husband. What do you do with such a woman? Woyzeck gets the answer from the voices in his head in a hallucinatory mood. She must die. Horrific as it is murder, the main emotion you feel as a viewer is pity and compassion for Woyzeck.

After all, the way in which he is reduced to a pathetic pile of human being that everyone walks over is extremely angry. It is also this descent into madness and despair of Woyzeck that is the main focus of the film. There is some interesting suggestion here and there about the “ man”, and how he cannot afford virtues and can do nothing but follow nature – culture is not for him – but this theme is being overshadowed by the central conflict. This conflict and the regrettable situation of Woyzeck are then just not made tangible enough for the viewer. It would have been nice to find out more about Woyzeck himself, his ideas, and the relationship with his wife.

The ending is impressive, but the stab of the dagger or the confusion and emotional pain that Woyzeck seizes after his act should actually be felt by the viewer. However much Kinski shares his feelings with the viewer through that intense and helpless look in his eyes, it all remains a bit too clinical. Perhaps the theatrical origin of the story becomes clear a bit too often through the sometimes somewhat artificial dialogue. Or perhaps more information about Woyzeck or more dynamism in the direction would have been welcome. In any case, the static camerawork itself was an excellent choice – it actually makes the extra oppressive, which only benefits the highly flammable story. And Kinski once again provides a brilliant rendition of a drifting character. It turns out once again: Herzog + Kinski = gold.

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