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WOYZECK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes
Director:  Werner Herzog
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Talent Files
Length: 80 Minutes
Release Date:  August 15, 2000

Film ***

There may not exist in the history of cinema a more tempestuously lucrative pairing than that of director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski.  Some of the stories of these men’s feuds are the stuff of legends.  My personal favorite is the tale Herzog often recalled of the Peruvian natives who volunteered to kill Kinski during their shoot of Aguirre.  The director always claimed he regretted declining their offer.

Yet, despite the hostility, the two worked together five times, and created some important and revered films for movie lovers to cherish.  Woyzeck doesn’t really achieve that kind of status for itself, yet it remains an interesting, if not entirely entertaining entry into the filmographies of these two men.  I mostly recommend it for Kinski’s brilliantly realized performance, and not for Herzog’s surprisingly inert direction.

Kinski plays the title character, Woyzeck (pronounced WOIT-sek), a man without a lot going for him.  He’s poor, he’s not too bright, he’s forty years old and still a private in the army, and his wife hasn’t slept with him for two years and is finding satisfaction elsewhere, though, like any good cuckold, doesn’t recognize that fact right away.

As the opening credits roll, we witness Woyzeck being brutalized and degraded by a drill instructor.  This represents only the beginning of the torments for this character in the film.  We soon sit back helplessly and watch a captain verbally humiliate him (and in much more personal ways than typical good old fashioned army taunting) while Woyzeck is calmly shaving him with a straight razor.  A curiously dangerous situation, yet Woyzeck’s demeanor makes us wonder at first if he’s capable of a real act of violence.

We also witness his bizarre relationship with the army’s doctor, who has obviously been using Woyzeck as a guinea pig for his experiments on diet and behavior.  One scene shows the doctor about to drop a cat out of a high window.  How will the animal react, he wonders?  When he drops the poor thing, Woyzeck is there to catch it.  The animal the doctor was referring to was not the cat, but the man.

We later see his wife, Marie (Mattes) engaged in an affair with an officer.  Marie sits in front of a mirror, and remarks with equal vanity and sadness that the only aspect she has that makes her more than just another poor woman is her beauty.

When the captain and the doctor accidentally (on purpose?) let slip to Woyzeck about the affair, we finally begin to see the inevitable unraveling of the man.  Certain earlier scenes exist to have us question whether his sanity was leaving him.  He seemed to see ominous forces on the horizon and hear voices speaking to him from under the earth.  Now, these voices are crying, “Stab!  Stab!”

The film finally reaches its Shakespearean climax, when a tortured Woyzeck takes Marie far out into the country and murders her.  The killing is filmed in super-slow motion, an effect lingering for a while after the deed to focus on Woyzeck’s reaction to what he’s done.  It is a powerful, chilling moment.

Herzog has remarked that Woyzeck was one of his favorite films to make, simply because it was one of the easiest.  It only took 18 days to make, and if you’ve ever seen Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, you’ll really appreciate the significance of that.  Herzog is most famous for his pictures that were made under the most grueling of conditions and over startling lengths of time, testing the mettle and sanity of both cast and crew (and inspiring some of the most famous bouts with Kinski).  Here, his approach is very simple—almost TOO simple.  The cameras rarely move, and cutting is quite minimal.  It doesn’t come across as being done for any other reason than conservation of energy.  As such, Woyzeck is visually one of Herzog’s weakest and most boring visual efforts.

The dynamic performance of Klaus Kinski is really the picture’s saving grace.  I personally consider him one of the greatest actors ever in the history of film.  He has a style that I like to refer to as natural exaggeration.  In other words, his performances are very emotional and broadly physical, yet never come across as overacting.  His intensity always seems to well from some boiling, buried turmoil that is under pressure and about to explode.  His work here makes us care about a character who only seems to exist as a dramatic experiment.  Just as the doctor in the film uses him as a test subject, the storytellers here seem to have created a man simply to push him to his emotional and physical limits, just to see what will happen.

If you’ve never seen one of the Herzog/Kinski collaborations before, I’d recommend two other Anchor Bay offerings ahead of this one:  the atmospheric Nosferatu the Vampire, or the stunning portrait of obsession Fitzcarraldo.  Or, check out Herzog’s tribute to his partner and nemesis, My Best Fiend.  Those will give you a much better look at what these two warring souls accomplished together, and provide you with enough appreciation to better enjoy a picture like Woyzeck.

Video ***

Once again, Anchor bay delivers the goods in this department.  Though the box states the ratio at 1.66:1, the anamorphic image is actually framed at 1.85:1.  Images are generally very sharp and well defined throughout, with only a touch of noticeable background softness here and there.  Colors are extremely natural looking and often quite beautiful, with no bleeding or distortion problems.  The scene before the murder, which shows Woyzeck and Marie walking toward a lake with their reflections visible, is as beautifully rendered a shot as any I’ve ever seen on DVD—however, the shot that follows the deed shows a bit of shimmer across the images of the trees in the background.  The print is mostly clean and free from nicks, dirt or debris, but there are a couple of spots in chapter 6 where the film blanches almost completely white for very brief moments, as though something had eroded the image on the negative.  But ultimately, what’s good about the transfer far outweighs what’s questionable, and I gladly proclaim this DVD another commendable effort from Anchor Bay.

Audio ***

Though only a 2 channel mono mix, this is actually a very good soundtrack, with surprising dynamic range.  Being that the film is in German, it’s hard to accurately diagnose the clarity of the dialogue, but when voices are raised, the audio reflects it.  The music is particularly good and expansive, not thin like you’d normally get with mono.  There’s not much real action in the picture, so I tended not to miss the lack of surrounds or deep bass.  The soundtrack is clean and noise-free, and makes for a good, enjoyable listen overall.

Features *1/2

The disc contains only a trailer and talent files for Kinski and Herzog.  Considering Anchor Bay’s releases of Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu the Vampire have commentary tracks with Herzog, I wonder why this title didn’t?

Summary:

Woyzeck is not the most memorable film to spring from the tumultuous partnering of Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, particularly since it lacks the strong visuals Herzog is famous for, but still stands as a testament to the work of these two men, and the fact that a lot of great art was never produced under the most harmonious of conditions.  Fans will relish Kinski’s remarkable performance above all else.