Werner Herzog's Stroszek (1977) easily qualifes as one of the weirdest features ever made. The premise - about a mentally-impaired German ex-con, a prostitute and a diminutive, wizened octogenarian scientist who collectively move from Berlin to rural Wisconsin and take up in a hideous prefabricated trailer - is unquestionably bizarre, but Stroszek is also, in its own idiosyncratic way, a brilliant, illuminating and heartfelt movie. Equally strange, however, is the backstory that belies the production of the film - an outrageous tale that outstrips anything in the movie itself with its quotient of pure unadulterated nuttiness, and that explains the inspiration for much of the tragicomedy that unfolds onscreen.
The history of this terminally odd picture begins in the mid-1970s, when famed documentarian Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) grew absolutely obsessed with the doings of notorious Wisconsin thrill butcher Ed Gein and his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin, then decided to share his obsession with friend Herzog. In the book Herzog on Herzog, Herzog recalls that Morris spent an untoward number of hours interviewing both Gein and many residents of Plainfield, in preparation for a future documentary. Morris discovered that Gein had apparently not only killed a large number of people but exhumed a circle of corpses from the ground, and began to fixate on the question of whether Gein's exhumations had included the body of his own mother. Eventually, he and Herzog decided to go to Plainfield together and dig in the ground to determine if Mrs. Gein's corpse was still present! (They were both, Herzog recalls, "Very excited about it.") Herzog indeed showed up, ready and eager for a grave-digging expedition, but Morris chickened out.
For even turning up in Plainfield (let alone scheming to dig through the bowels of the Earth) Herzog clocks in, once more, as the most courageous of all living directors - but the Plainfield story only begins there. He didn't exhume Mrs. Gein's body, but (genius that he is) he did catch the inspiration for a feature shot in Gein's home town. Herzog later provided some insight into his inescapable fascination with Plainfield: "You have these points in the United States - for example, Las Vegas, or the Stock Exchange on Wall Street, or San Quentin prison - where the dreams and nightmares all come together. And I count Plainfield, Wisconsin amongst them."
Most intriguing is that neither Gein himself nor Plainfield are directly named in the film (Herzog substitutes the apocryphal "Railroad Flats, Wisconsin" for Plainfield), but Gein's aura is consistently present on-camera, and never once in a frightening way - rather, present in the inbred, semi-decrepit appearances of the townsfolk, present in the way that one Plainfield resident forcibly removes one of his own rotting molars on-camera with a pair of toolshed pliers, and present in the barren and subhuman conditions of the town proper, with its stark, empty mudfields and rusty, abandoned railroad cars. Hence one character's assertion, "We've had four, maybe five murderers here in Railroad Flats." It isn't difficult for us to see how this environment could have produced a monster like Gein (perhaps even multiple psychopaths), and it is this environment that Herzog uses as a platform for his central character, Stroszek's (Bruno S.), "failed American dream," after the fellow moves from Berlin to Wisconsin. The surroundings are so disadvantageous that - when coupled with Stroszek's ignorance of the American language and his simple-minded approach to life - they can only lead to his personal defeat and downfall.
And yet the film never once feels difficult to watch; it qualifies as a tragedy of the deepest and most profound sort, with a heartbreaking ending, but Herzog lifts it from the pit of despair by blending the inherent sadness with a surfeit of warm-hearted human comedy that runs throughout much of the picture and that redeems it from the devastating, potentially crushing weight of sorrow. Bruno S. himself (a grizzled German performance artist whom Herzog regarded as slightly schizophrenic) is a natural comedian - sweet, gentle, saintly and eminently loveable - and his unpredictable responses to nearly everything before him somehow justify our ability to laugh with him as he gets pulled into increasingly ridiculous and desperate circumstances in an attempt to keep his head above water. (Consider, for example, the character's eventual assistance in the armed robbery of a barbershop - an act that leaves him with about $30.00 to buy groceries). According to Herzog's wonderful commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, the image that most people associate with this film is that of a dancing chicken in an arcade exhibit at the conclusion of the story - a sight that Herzog cuts back to time and again as a metaphor to underscore the absurdity of life - but far more profound and touching, is an early scene set in Berlin, prior to Stroszek's move to Wisconsin with his friends. Dismayed and downtrodden by the circumstances life has thrust onto his shoulders, he visits a physician friend in a German hospital for solace - who indeed provides an unusual source of encouragement. The doctor takes Stroszek into the maternity ward and shows him a tiny, prematurely-born human baby. The infant, as he points out, is a miracle of survival - tiny, fragile and completely dependent - and yet it latches onto the doctor's finger with a steady grip - a grip so firm and tight that the baby can actually be lifted out of its incubator, by its hands, without ever once relinquishing its hold.
For this viewer, the preemie embodies the thematic core of the picture - a symbolic homage to human tenacity amid the absurd, the ridiculous, and the insane circumstances into which many men and women find themselves thrust on a daily basis. Throughout the film Stroszek projects the ability, like the very best of us, to somehow keep on trying in the face of despair and defeat. And though he eventually suffers from an inescapably tragic (and violent) fate, his end serves predominantly as a reflection on the impossibility of the world that has ensconced him. Miraculously, and in a way that is almost inexplicable, the conclusion feels completely real and credible and yet never risks negating the resilience that Stroszek has demonstrated for the better part of two hours, or undercutting the film's tribute to the power of the human spirit in the face of absolutely insurmountable odds.