Woyzeck

Though as closely associated as Wayne and Ford and DeNiro and Scorsese, Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog made only five films together. Of those, Woyzeck is one of the least known and in many ways least. An adaptation of a work by influential 19th-century German playwright Georg Büchner, Woyzeck was for years a dream project for Herzog, who ranks Büchner among his greatest influences. The director filmed this version quickly, immediately after completing his 1979 remake of Nosferatu, but unlike that film and other remarkable collaborations with Kinski (Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, Fitzcarraldo), Woyzeck's appeal depends heavily on the romantic allure of the legendary pair. Though an intriguing film—it's hard to imagine a Herzog film being less than intriguing—with an oddball, affecting performance by Kinski, it never finds its footing or lets viewers forget its stage origins. Taking the title role, Kinski plays a lowly, put-upon soldier who for reasons never fully explained has been kept on an all-pea diet. His descent into madness receives a swift kick when wife Eva Mattes cheats on him with a drum major, leading to dire consequences. At the heart of Woyzeck is a serious debate about oppression and the nature of humanity and evil, a holdover from Büchner's play too often obscured by Herzog's herky-jerky presentation and the fatal mistake of cutting much of Büchner's dialogue. Monologues remain intact, but crucial exchanges, many of them belonging to the title character, are missing entirely. Considered an important step toward modernism and one of the first plays to make a tragedy of the fate of the common person, this adaptation—too talky and stagy one moment, too obscure the next—does little to convey Woyzeck's importance. Handsomely mounting each scene, the director has trouble attaining any forward momentum, though he achieves some powerful moments while trying. The film's violent climax, a slow-motion shot that never seems to end, is particularly memorable, but it does more to silence the issues raised in the film than resolve them, confirming Woyzeck as a valiant but unsatisfying effort to bring a major influence to the screen.

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