Woyzeck’s artistry is undeniable—it was awarded the Silver Guild Film Award from the Guild of German Art House Cinemas and Eva Mattes won Best Supporting Actress at Cannes, where the film was also in contention for the Palme d’Or—it is rarely considered essential Herzog viewing. There are no personal touches of Herzog’s added to the script (Nosferatu), no notable Kinski tantrums (Fitzcarraldo) and no extreme shooting locations (Aguirre, the Wrath of God). What is left is, possibly, the most “Herzog” of Herzog films, the platonic ideal of what Herzog could accomplish on film when all the stars aligned and nothing went wrong. That may be a detriment to some filmgoers (and some sadists), but not to Herzog. As the director himself told Roger Ebert in a workshop conducted the year of the film’s release, “People don’t seem to understand that I hate to make difficult films.”
Woyzeck is at once characteristic of and anomalous to Werner Herzog’s filmography. It’s unquestionably a “classic Herzog”—a man played by Klaus Kinski is driven to deranged extremes against a hostile environment—but Woyzeck, in a rare turn, is also surprisingly political; rarer still, its production saw not just calm but speed. Despite this, Woyzeck unfortunately remains something of an afterthought in the catalogue, living in the tall shadows of its siblings Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (themselves both featuring Kinski).
Woyzeck is adapted from Georg Büchner’s 1836 play of the same name—a damning tragedy of a poor German soldier pushed to madness by a society unsympathetic to the lower class—which proved influential to later writers such as Bertolt Brecht and György Lukács, as well as provided the basis of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Büchner, however, died in 1837 at the age of 23, leaving Woyzeck in a fragmentary state (Büchner left four conflicting manuscripts of the play), with a collection of out-of-sequence scenes for later generations to argue over. Despite this confusion, Herzog described the original work to Ebert as “the most remarkable and probably the strongest drama-text that has ever been written in the German language” (Herzog earlier showed his admiration of Büchner in Every Man for Himself and God Against All: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, opening the film with a quote from the latter’s novella Lenz: “Don’t you hear that horrifying voice that screams across the entire horizon and is usually called silence?”). It stands to reason, then, that Herzog would eventually adapt the work into a film; sure enough, Herzog in 1978 began preparations with, in the title role of Franz Woyzeck, Bruno S.
At least initially, Bruno S. (the eccentric street musician and star of Herzog’s earlier Kaspar Hauser) was to headline Woyzeck; that is, until Herzog had second thoughts. Perhaps because the actor was close at hand, or maybe just to see the man act against his usual menacing type, Herzog recast Klaus Kinski (a frequent collaborator/adversary and star of Nosferatu, whose production was underway) in the role. In consolation, Herzog wrote Stroszek for Bruno S. to star in. Recalling the incident, Herzog “told him, ‘Bruno, I’m going to invent a story for you, not a Woyzeck but something with a basic feeling of Woyzeck in it.’ And so I wrote Stroszek, although Woyzeck was still on my mind, and it still kept on bothering me.” It apparently bothered Herzog enough that he began production on his own adaptation of Woyzeck a mere five days after production on Nosferatu had wrapped.
The brevity of this interlude meant that Nosferatu and Woyzeck would necessarily share the same crew. Longtime collaborator Beate Mainka-Jelinghaus edited both, and Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, Henning von Gierke and Gisela Storch returned in their capacities as cinematographer, set decorator and costume designer, respectively. Also returning was production manager Walter Saxer, whose contentious relationship with Kinski was later captured on film (Herzog’s My Best Fiend, his documentary about his work with Kinski, features footage of Kinski screaming obscenities at Saxer, apparently about the quality of the food during production of Fitzcarraldo). Saxer cameos in Woyzeck; appropriately, he is Woyzeck’s drill sergeant at the film’s opening, a character unseen except for his boots that kick Woyzeck into a cobblestone street so hard that Kinski’s face visibly swells. Herzog noticed this and told him, “’Klaus, stop: do not move. Just look at me.’ He was still exhausted from doing his push-ups, but he looks with such power into the camera that it really sets up the feel of the rest of the film.”
Perhaps it was because of this genuine exhaustion that lent itself well to the Woyzeck character, or maybe it was because of the readymade, work-hardened crew, or maybe it was luck; whatever the reason, Woyzeck’s production ran so smoothly that the entire film was shot in eighteen days, and edited in an additional four. No onset tantrums from Kinski, no dragging a steamboat over a hill, no complications whatsoever. Adding to the film’s incongruity is its political bent; Woyzeck’s madness stems greatly from his mistreatment at the hands of his social superiors (his doctor, his commanding officer). Kinski’s usual madman character is subverted in favor of a sympathetic man driven mad from external forces. As Herzog related to Ebert, it’s all as it should have been. “I hate to have all these problems. That’s the reason I liked making Woyzeck so much…That’s how films should be made. That was perfect!”