There’s something about that chicken. Stroszek concludes with its hero’s life in ruins: flat broke, newly homeless, his stolen pickup left ablaze and smoking in a small-town diner parking lot. We last see the hapless Bruno Stroszek looping up and down a dinky mountain lift, a ten-pound frozen turkey in one hand and a rifle in the other. After making a go of a new life abroad he’s found himself stranded in a country where he doesn’t speak the language, his modest American dream left in tatters around him. The future looks dire; he has no plans, no options, no recourse. In his desperation he follows an old trope: he turns to crime. The last fifteen minutes of Stroszek are like a demented version of Bonnie and Clyde: Bruno and his senile neighbor become idiots on the run, robbing a barber for petty cash before fleeing next door to spend their spoils. The neighbor ends up arrested. Bruno ends up dead by his own hand. Werner Herzog brings this comic tragedy to a close with a shot of farm animals performing tricks for quarters—a duck that bangs a drum, a dancing chicken. It’s inexplicable. It’s also devastating. What is it about that damn chicken?
Stroszek tells a story so simple that it seems almost archetypal. Self-taught musician, outsider artist, and amateur actor Bruno Schleinstein, credited most regularly as Bruno S., plays Bruno Stroszek, a nominally fictional version of himself introduced on his way out of a reformatory in downtown Berlin. Bestowed once more his former possessions and strongly advised, before being released, to avoid alcohol, Bruno saunters out the door and, naturally, heads straight for the nearest pub. It’s here that Bruno finds his story’s cast of characters. Herzog’s Berlin is populated with stock types familiar from old American movies. We meet the prostitute with a heart of gold, Eva (Eva Mattes), down on her luck and invited to shack up (within minutes of the film beginning) with our generous hero. We meet the tough-guy pimps, hot-headed and looking for what’s coming to them, to whom Eva was formerly employed. There’s even a wise, gentle neighbour, Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), whose American cousin invites the lot of them to venture stateside to pursue a life of wealth and comfort. Only poor Bruno seems without precedent. And how: in the history of cinema, there’s never been anybody like him.
Much about Bruno Stroszek’s life is based on Bruno Schleinstein’s—from his glockenspiel street busking to his Berlin apartment, which Herzog adopted as a set—and this helps account for his singularity as a character. A man like this couldn’t be conceived of on paper. But it isn’t true to say that Bruno isn’t acting: what Schleinstein delivers for Herzog is very much a performance, and one that, in its proximity to truth, conveys an extraordinary depth of psychology and emotion. Bruno Stroszek remains one of the great human characters because Bruno Schleinstein gave one of the great human performances—the creation of a life, the depiction of a person, and nothing less than the bearing of the soul. The men and women around Bruno are responsible largely for what you might describe as “local flavor”—they flesh out the world of Berlin as it existed for Bruno and as it is existed for Herzog, and they are at least as much texture as people. Herzog cast nonprofessionals in nearly every role, and you can tell. These faces, whether on the streets of Germany or the diners of the United States, look like they belong to their environment. When the cameras stop rolling, you get the sense that they’ll continue going about their business.
And yet despite how much Herzog grounded the production in reality, Stroszek never feels anything like a documentary of the time and place—in fact it often feels closer to fantasy than to a work of nonfiction. At times the story starts to sound like a fairy tale. The plot seems to follow its hero’s sudden whims: one minute Bruno is considering a drastic transatlantic move, and the next minute he’s arriving at JFK, flabbergasted less with his surroundings than with customs having confiscated his pet bird. Nothing ever seems to happen quite as you’d expect it to. Freshly landed in New York, dodging taxis and navigating the metropolitan streets, Bruno and his mates look braced for culture shock, and momentarily Stroszek seems as if it will become a fish-out-of-water story in the bone-dry style of Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America. Not so for Herzog. No sooner than his protagonists arrive in the big city than they are whisked away to their final destination: the (fictional) town of Railroad Flats, Wisconsin, where they plan to start their life anew.
Eva begins waitressing at a nearby diner, while Bruno, who speaks not a word of English, is hired by Scheitz’s cousin as an assistant mechanic in an automotive garage. This new life, they find, is much like their old life, though with the added temptation of debt—which, sure enough, they soon accrue beyond hope. Enjoying the luxury of a leased motorhome, and furnished, of course, with the requisite accoutrements of modern living, Bruno and Eva savor their humble American idly . . . for about a month. Then comes the knock at the door: it’s a friendly banker (Scott McKain), obsequious and finely besuited, here to politely threaten our heroes with repossession. Bruno and Eva fled the brutality of the meathead pimps, but the banks and credit card companies prove no less brutal—they just wear a smile while they rob you. So it is that the new life crumbles. Eva decamps to Vancouver by transport truck with a pair of promising suitors. Bruno watches helplessly as his motorhome is sold off by an auctioneer whose rapid-fire speech he wouldn’t understand even if he spoke the language. In the end Bruno is left with nothing: just a used car, a senile old friend, and a stolen gun. What’s a good German to do?
Bruno’s downfall is tragic. It’s also, in Herzog’s rendering, remarkably funny: the whole thing is shot through with dark, idiosyncratic humor, and it would be inaccurate to describe this as anything, ultimately, but a comedy. But if Bruno himself is a comic figure, it’s plainly in the Buster Keaton mould, where the world-weariness is evident in the face even as everything falls down mockingly around him. Herzog doesn’t seem interested in sadness or melancholy, and Stroszek permits its hero no time for sympathetic moping. The ending of the film hangs heavy with pathos—it couldn’t be any other way. And yet its final images are something else, something strange, maybe even something transcendent. Roger Ebert said the chicken was metaphor for our own lives: “A force we cannot comprehend puts some money in the slot, and we dance until the money runs out.” I like the cosmic quality of that reading—its suggestion of the absurdity in everything. But for me the dancing suggests a perverse sort of joy. What is the dancing chicken, as an image, if not a frisson of absurd pleasure? Of happiness, of magic? Of pure cinema? That’s what Stroszek taps into at its best: the absurd and the sublime. It’s that damn chicken.