Saturday, 9 February 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 34. Woyzeck

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Director Werner Herzog
Country - Germany
Year - 1979
Runtime - 82 Minutes

Werner Herzog has had a wild and varied career as a film director but is perhaps best known for his extraordinary depictions of men driven to the brink of madness. Both Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God were shot in the Amazon rainforest in Peru and starred Klaus Kinski in the leading roles under notoriously difficult and demanding conditions. In both instances Herzog overcame these challenges to create remarkable films thanks to his unwavering ambition and the unique perspective on storytelling he brings to all of his pictures.

Another stunning collaboration between Herzog and Kinski that explores the breakdown of a man's sanity is one of his overlooked gems, Woyzeck. Whereas Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God are original works by Herzog, Woyzeck is an adaptation of an unfinished German stageplay, and its unconventional storyline is perfectly suited to Herzog's style of film-making. This project was set in Herzog's home country of Germany where he faced less logistical challenges. Filming commenced only five days after he finished shooting Nosferatu and was impressively completed in just eighteen days. Kinski is as captivating as ever in his arresting portrayal of Woyzeck. His wild expressions and deep, soul-searching gaze perfectly evoke the descent into madness required for the role.

Woyzeck is set in a stunning German town overlooking a lake and the opening shot provides a picturesque view of this beautiful location. A gentle and delicate tune plays in the background conjuring up visions of fairy-tales as the camera pans across the town's tall and imposing buildings that gaze across the calm and still lake. This serene setting is interrupted with the unpleasant sound of a discordant accordion that heralds the arrival of the titular character, Woyzeck, a soldier who maniacally runs into shot and proceeds to frantically carry out the orders bellowed out by an abusive officer. Herzog delivers a memorable opening that sets the scene and introduces his crazy protagonist who we are instantly fascinated by.

It is clear from the outset that something is not quite right with Woyzeck, although it is difficult to pin down the source of his outbursts of lunacy. Those around Woyzeck berate his madness; his captain telling him that he always has a hunted look in his eyes - 'a good man doesn't have that', and his wife proclaims that he is so absent and 'might go crazy with those thoughts.' He talks in unsettling and confusing riddles and pays little attention to his young son. Kinski's chaotic performance is perfectly suited to this role; he embodies Woyzeck's scattershot and unpredictable existence with a commitment that showcases all of the agony and suffering his tormented character experiences.

As Woyzeck's agitation increases his actions become more unpredictable and alarming. A primary cause of this agitation is his wife, who is besotted with a proud dum major that she proclaims is as strong as an ox with hands like the paws of a lion. This major is depicted as the epitomy of man in comparison to Woyzeck who is downtrodden from constantly being used, abused and tormented by those around him. This situation has an ugly effect on Woyzeck's already failing mental state and drives him close to insanity, an insanity which leads to devastating consequences.

The accompanying soundtrack chimes with the film's theme of hysteria, exaggerating the deranged actions of Woyzeck and infusing Herzog's vision with a baroque sensibility that transports the audience back in time. Both the imposing architecture seen in the historic locations of the film's settings and the outstanding costumes bring life to the era depicted in Woyzeck. This is a breathtaking historical drama, albeit one with an enthralling storyline that visits dark places and does not shy away from depicting the inherent evil that can be seen in humanity.

Herzog uses a combination of static shots and shots that roam the setting horizontally; long takes that capture the unfolding action and allow the actors to flex their prowess by giving them time to develop fascinating characters. These lengthy scenes taking place in a single location emphasise the film's stage play origins but Herzog's set design and framing is so inviting that this doesn't detract from its impact as a motion picture. At times it feels like you are stepping back into history by visiting a strange museum that captures the essence of the era and tells a beguiling and haunting story.

Rich, poetic language is used throughout, varying from the philosophical to the obtuse and nonsensical. This dialogue is always enthralling and the delivery of the lines, particularly from Kinski, is utterly captivating, especially when he rambles away in one of his seemingly directionless monologues. These monologues are often regaled whilst others are present but he rarely meets the eyes of the people he speaks with. Conversely, when Woyzeck is not speaking, he is usually aloof and gazing aimlessly into space.

In one of the film's defining sequences, Herzog uses slow motion to great effect, emphasising the sheer horror of the scenario by lingering over the contorted faces of those involved. Grand, operatic music adds a powerful emotional edge to Woyzeck's despair during this earth-shattering breakdown. Shortly after this unforgettable scene the film ends in a similar fashion to how it begins; with a static shot of the town by the lake and a thought-provoking quote appearing on screen once more. The delicate notes of a music box flutter in to life once more although this time we are clear that Woyzeck is a far cry from a film with a fairy tale ending.

If you take the time to watch Woyzeck then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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