The delights and revelations of the New German Cinema, as exemplified in the movies of Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, seem to manifest themselves time and again to several American critics, but they remain a mystery to me.
Since there are a handful of supposedly devastating Herzog titles and about three dozen reputed master pieces from Fassbinder I still haven't caught up with. I'm willing to allow that my suspicions about their genius may be unjustified. Nevertheless, with the belated arrival of another Herzog or Fassbinder in Washington, it begins to appear that waiting for the good ones may prove as fruitful as waiting for Godot.
The latest case in point is Herzog's "Stroszek" now at the inner Circle. The inimitable Bruno S. who made an indelibly peculiear impression as the founding Kaspar Hauser in an earlier Herzog film, has been reunited with his discoverer for this dogged obstinately despairing parable about the hopeless situation of the pure-at-heart in a harsh, indifferent world.
Bruno makes his entrance as a prison inmate on the day of his release. Received by the warden. Bruno is advised that he must keep out of trouble or next time it's for keeps. Herzog seems to have arranged this encounter for the special pleasure of Bruno's adoring fans. The actor playing the warden rattles off all the expository dialogue and symbolizes the forces of social authority and confirmity too, while scruffy rumpled Bruno frowns, does his mechanical man movements, interjects an occasional mumble or roar in reply, and generally advertises the facts that he's on a wave length apart from anyone else's and presumably superior by virtue of being so sorrowfully incommunicable.
Bruno returns to his old apartment in Berlin and his old job as a street musician accompanying himself on glockenspiel and accordion. Evidently, this was his profession when Herzog discovered him; judging from the few verses we're allowed to hear along with a sparse, unpaying street audience (an admission, perhaps of Herzog's fears about his own public?), the discovery didn't come a moment too soon.
Bruno has a soft spot for a bedraggled streetwalker named Eva, played by Eva Mattes and offers her shelter from her abusive pimps, who drop by to beat her up at Bruno's place anyway and humiliate Bruno, too, when that amuses them. Eventually, the plot gets off dead center when Bruno and Eva agree to accompany his aged landlord, Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), to rural Wisconsin where the old man has a nephew who works as a garage mechanic.
So Herzog escorts this odd little trio of emigrants to Wisconsin, in order to demonstrate that their fond hopes for happier lives will be even more cruelly and insidiously betrayed. It doesn't matter that in objective terms his characters do appear to stand a better change in this new, if foreign environment. As far as one can tell, Eva looks healthier and happier waiting tables at a truckstop diner than she did soaking up punishment back home and Scheitz would probably be content puttering around with his pseudo-ssientific experiments in "animal magnetism."
It's Bruno who remains stubbornly discontented and maladjusted, and since Bruno is the filmmaker's alterego and primary symbol for mute, suffering humanity, his response is the only one meant to convey wisdom and moral authority. When Bruno insists that things are worse in America because "Bruno is still being pushed around, not physically but spiritually; here they hurt you with a smile," one is compelled to swallow this self-pity whole or reject the entire sentimental conception behind it.
Herzog doesn't justify Bruno's assertions dramatically. He may flatter himself that some form of social betrayal has been illustrated when he shows the bank repossessing Bruno's mobile home, but this episode looks like a joke to Americans, who will never be able to figure out how Bruno got a bank loan in the first place. In some perverse way Herzog would probably prefer to see his despised and rejected characters remain despised and rejected, because it's their abject misery alone that seems to affirm their humanity in his eyes.
There is an undenably remarkable sequence in which the despondent Bruno is consoled by a Berlin doctor who advises him not to let life get him down and tries to reinforce the advice by showing him a premature baby. It's remarkable because the infant's obvious rage to live - it cries lustily and grips the doctor's fingers fiercely - is so alien to the rest of the film, which is governed by an almost complacently despairing, apprehensive view of life.
That infant's feeling surge out of real life rather than Herzog's stunted abstractions. The sequence seems devastating because it exposes the shallowness of the filmmaker's prevailing unhappiness which is the usual artistic vanity panhandling for more sympathy than it deserves.
The movie is strewn with gauche little appeals for sympathy. When someone tells Bruno, "Your piano has a sluggish action and a dull tone," and he replies. "Yes, but it's the only one I have," one can't help but interpret the exchange as Herzog justifying himself.
I suspect that the motives underlying this peculiarly rambling, unassimilated movie also derive from a need for self-justification and reassurance that Herzog's followers have yet to appreciate. It's no secret that Hollywood has been making overtures to Herzog and Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, a third young West German filmmaker whose work is totally unknown to me but who sounds like a more palusible talent. Fassbinder, having completed an English-language production written by Tom Stoppard and starring Dirk Bogarde, is supposedly on his way. Herzog is supposed to be considering a remake of Murnau's "Nosferatu" the grand-daddy of vampire classics.
I think "Stroszek" may be Herzog's way of telling himself as well as the solicitous American producers, that even if he accepts their offers, he doesn't intend to 'sell out." He'll still be the noble-hearted misfit, like his beloved, out-of-it Bruno, instead of a filmmaking equivalent of the critters he finds at a roadside arcade at the close of the film - the rabbit fire-chief, the drum-playing duck, the piano-playing chicken and most of all the dancing chicken. In short, Herzog may have needed to reaffirm his integrity before signing up with the Philistines.
The persistent acclaim in some quarters for Herzog and Fassbinder may reflect a nostalgic critical longing for another New Wave. In addition, it may reveal a reluctance to admit that such a development could be dominated by Americans rather than Europeans. How does one account for the excessive critical promotion of Herzog or Fassbinder at a time when Americans like Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Michael Ritchie, Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky and many others have been conspicuously productive? Does it indicate an emotional preference for platitudinous doom and gloom in a foreign accent or a simple misapprehension about what to take seriously?
Curiously, we may have seen our own potential Young Germans already in directors like Paul Williams, Jerry Schatzberg, Terrence Mallick and Floyd Mutrux. A young American critic interested in making a perverse reputation might consider a tome arguing that the outstanding titles of the period are things like "Dealing," Scarcecrow," "Badlands" and "Aloha, Bobby and Rose," rather than things like "Nashville," "Taxi Driver," "Jaws" or "Star Wars." Lots and luck. Meanwhile, one awaits from the enigmatic Germans that masterwork which always seems to be just over the horizon.