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The dancing chicken. I'm truly unsure what exactly to make of that dancing chicken. It just kicks up its heels and shakes its groove-thing for a quarter. Acclaimed German director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) moves his cameras and mikes from Europe to Wisconsin, and the result is something strange for U.S. eyes – a near-cinema verite that looks at America with decidedly continental eyes. This is a German film that happens to take place largely in Wisconsin – and it is Wisconsin you're seeing; you're just seeing it from a different perspective. The perspective is that of the outsider, the foreigner, the one who speaks no English. Somehow, through Herzog's lens, what is familiar takes on an alien tincture, and the heartland glows just as oddly (if somewhat more kindly) as it does in David Lynch's corn-fed fever dreams.
Stroszek does not follow any kind of traditional character arc. Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.), a just-released convict of limited means and a dogged romanticism, joins up with Eva (Eva Mattes), a pragmatic hooker who has just been given the boot by her abusive pimps. Along for the ride is his elderly neighbor, an amateur scientist and talented pianist. Finding life in Berlin unsatisfactory, these three disparate desperates pack up and head to the land of cheese, where they have heard there are opportunities, jobs. But Bruno has more in the way of empathy than he has in the way of brains, and his hard lessons in misplaced trust and the importance of paying bills are learned slowly, not in the manner of a series of plot events, but rather at the languid pace of real life; and, as it unfolds, it shapes itself not into tragedy, but rather into deep sadness. Bruno's tale is not one of learning or of self-discovery; rather, it is the story of a man whose failure seems fated, no matter the geography.
I'm playing pretty free-and-loose with divulging the details of what happens, but that's because this movie is spoil-proof. There are few films in which I've been less sure of what's coming next. The film's pace and naturalism – the characters are mainly played by non-actors, and Bruno S. is in many ways playing himself – do allow for some lags and gaps in pacing, but also make way for beautiful and surprising moments. Bruno plays a song of love to his new lady on his accordion. A robbery so botched that it becomes the film's biggest joke. A group goes hunting over a frozen pond with a metal detector for a murdered body. That final line of dialogue, spoken in English, so matter-of-fact that you have to rewind to be sure you heard the guy right.
This film is not anti-American, though the concept of the 'American Dream' is exposed for the fool's gold it is. But that's been done into the ground, and anyway Herzog is after something more - and more subtle - than that. In any event, America actually comes out well when compared to Germany. The life in Berlin is shown to be harsher than the life in Wisconsin (the people in the U.S., at least, are less vicious), and Bruno's failure is in great part his own fault. He believes in love that isn't there, he makes no attempt to learn the rules or language of his new society, he seems incapable of tending for his needs. Perhaps Stroszek is about the failure of all civilizations to find a place for the people who live on the margin. Or perhaps, even, about how society as a matter of course must form margins and people to live in them (I think it is no accident that a Native American is a presence in the Wisconsin scenes) Perhaps Herzog wishes to compare the Dream of wealth with the Dream of love, and the disappointments that can arise with both. And still, that crazy chicken dances through it, a thematic thread, a creature willing to make a robot out of itself for two bits.