June 27, 2009


This review contains spoilers.

An image remains from Woyzeck, Werner Herzog's film starring Klaus Kinski, it is Kinski's soldier, Woyzeck, holding the body of a dying woman that he has just stabbed, her hands reach up to touch his jacket and smear his elbow with blood. On Kinski's face is a look of absolute horror, the look that tells you that no matter where this character goes- no matter what he does- this moment will stay with him for the rest of his life and he will be inhabited by it. Kinski's character has just murdered this woman because she was his wife and he suspected her of infidelity- in that sense Herzog is telling a story that is as old as stories and the world itself. Othello and Desdemona might tell the same story- yet here Woyzeck is correct, Maria his wife has committed adultery with a drum major. But that is only the beggining of the indignities poured upon Woyzeck's head- this is not a tale about jealousy, it is a tale about the slow disappearance of a man's mind under the pressure of hierarchy, under the pressure of being normal.

Lets go back for a moment, let me describe a key scene- the scene in which Maria commits adultery with the drum major. She makes him march up and down. She then strokes his arms and hands and proclaims them the arms and hands of a 'real man'. He fumbles with the top of her dress, feeling inside to her breasts and pronounces that she is a 'real woman'. Woyzeck of course is neither of those things- later on when he encounters the drum major, the young man flings him aside like a rag doll. The contrast between the vast and handsome drum major- a caricature of a manly man- and Woyzeck who apologises for his presense at every moment. The drum major runs his hands over Maria's breasts and forces her to accede to his sexual desires, whereas Woyzeck passes through his rooms and her house like a shadow, a ghost of a man who mumbles his entrances and exits, coming to present money but not romance and not even having a real role in the life of his son.

This makes it all the more ironic that Woyzeck's second major relationship in the film is with a doctor who wishes to examine what men are. He has been asked to eat peas for an entire year and nothing else. Woyzeck's humiliation in the service of science is a deadly business and it reveals two things. The first is the blindness of a scientist who concentrates callously upon the content of his experiment, ignoring its wider context. The doctor who does the experiments is not interested in Woyzeck the man but Woyzeck the specimen. The doctor's failure of interest is a moral failure- but more importantly it is a schematic failure. The doctor's role is to analyse and understand Woyzeck's madness- but of course what he misses is the danger of Woyzeck's depression. What Herzog therefore argues is that the doctor just like the drum major is complicit in Woyzeck's depression, by treating him as less than a man- and that unlike the drum major whose function is to seduce, the doctor fails in his function.

Like the doctor, the third major character that stands over Woyzeck is his captain. Again the issue is the captain's blindness to Woyzeck. The captain too is not really enacting his function- he gives a little speech, Flashmanlike, on the value of cowardice in the army (in that sense he is the opposite to the drum major). But furthermore the captain is offensive and ignorant about his subordinate- he treats Woyzeck when he shaves him as a screen to rebound ideas off and not a human being. In a sense Herzog in the relationship between Woyzeck and the captain is making a point about the alienation of workers from their employers- it is an alienation visible here in a hierarchical bureacratic system and reminds us that the responsibility of command is to contradict alienation, also that the most fatal critique of command is alienation. In a similar way to the doctor, the captain fuels the later crisis- in the doctor's case it was a failure of epistemology in a scientist, in the captain's it is a failure of pastoralism in a superior- in both cases, they betray in Woyzeck's case the definition of their role and their betrayel causes the terrible events of the later film.

The complexities of the film I think are complexities that Herzog diagnoses in modern society. This is meant to be a commentary on human life- in a sense Herzog is showing us that the consequence of repression is terrible. But it is also a commentary on the social and hierarchical relationships that enthuse society and drive repression. Woyzeck's life is ruined- he then ruins the lives of others but Herzog is much more interested in the first part of that phrase than the latter. Woyzeck's decisions happen inside his head: what could have been changed is the factors which led to them.


James Higham said...

One of the big five. Would Bruno S have been better? Could he have carried it off?