Woyzeck (Klaus Kinski) is a soldier stationed in a small German town who is bullied and berated by many of those around him. The local physician uses him as a guinea pig for his experiments and the army captain for whom he acts as barber likes to lecture him on his lack of morals. Woyzeck has an illegitimate child with a former lover, Marie (Eva Mattes), yet when she tells him she wants nothing to do with him he threatens her with violence. Soon Marie takes up with another army officer, driving Woyzeck – already mentally unstable – over the edge of madness.
Country: West Germany
Director: Werner Herzog
Writers: Georg Büchner, Werner Herzog
Cinematographer: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes
Runtime: 82 minutes
It is no surprise that Klaus Kinski looks like he’s in a living hell at the opening of Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck. Only five days after completing filming for Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) the director took the same small cast and crew to Czechoslovakia to shoot this next film, one of many adaptations of an unfinished play by Georg Büchner. In it Kinski plays the titular soldier who gradually loses his mind while stationed in a quiet, provincial German town. In fact, he may have already lost it by the time we first see him being put through his paces by a drill instructor, hopping and crawling around the screen like a tortured frog. Kinski’s expressive face grimaces straight into the camera throughout, perhaps damning his director under his breath, for despite the gruelling schedule of shooting two films practically back-to-back, the actor is offered no respite. His pain seems very real.
Audiences were already accustomed to Klaus Kinski’s madness prior to Woyzeck, after his leading performance as the zealous conquistador in Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), a film that spawned myths about the fiery relationship between director and star. The character of Woyzeck lies halfway between Aguirre and the monster Nosferatu, partly due to Kinski’s pallor and shaven head. He wanders through the film in a stupor, his gaze fixed on some unseen horizon, as if he’s always on the verge of discovering some fundamental truth. It seems that the fine line between genius and madness was crossed before we even set eyes on Woyzeck. For much of the film, though, it’s madness without direction. He is subject to all sorts of hostile influences, from the physician that uses him as guinea pig for his experiments to the soldiers who bully and berate him, yet he holds his derangement coiled within him when around these people, instead releasing it only with his former mistress, Marie (Eva Mattes). She is the cause of the spreading blackness of his heart, a lover who no longer desires him and mother to his illegitimate son. It is her licentiousness with the soldiers who are so hostile to Woyzeck that finally breaks him. He is a madman and a coward but he is also a romantic, in the most tortured sense of the word.
There is something unappealing about Woyzeck’s madness. He lacks the fervent ideology that made Aguirre so interesting and there is nothing profound about his misty-eyed, spiritualist raving. Perhaps because he’s already broken before we meet him there’s not even a fragment of his personality that hasn’t been twisted out of shape. One of the early scenes sees him shaving one of his captains with a straight-razor, a sinister tableau dripping with implied violence. As this captain chastises Woyzeck for his shortcomings – mostly directed at his lower class – the flash of steel across throat would not be surprising, but instead we are merely left with its frantic scratching across the man’s ruddy cheeks. The implication is not forgotten as the film progresses. Instead it gestates as Woyzeck’s instability worsens, until that shave is echoed in his final, manic act of violence. The rinsing of his captain’s cheeks is repeated in a climactic bathing of his own sins. Does this ending show Woyzeck’s first and last moment of truthfulness? Or is it simply a measure of how far he’s fallen?
Werner Herzog has filmed a beloved text with the utmost fidelity, many of his scenes presented as if on stage; conversations are long and shots remain unbroken for minutes on end. In comparison to the rest of his oeuvre it is one of his more minor pieces, but one that seems vital considering the pedigree of the text upon which it is based, a play that has otherwise been adapted for film by János Szász and the Iranian auteur Dariush Mehrjui (The Postman, 1971). It is Klaus Kinski’s film as much as it is Herzog’s, his performance just as magnetic as any of their other collaborations and perhaps informed by the exhaustion of shooting two films almost without rest. It is by no means a great war movie or a great love story but a simple tale of one man buckling under the weight of repression. Monster, madman or both, Klaus Kinski is unforgettable.