Woyzeck, Werner Herzog (1979)

Klaus Kinski, man’s best fiend, upsets my dog. Curiously, it’s not the scenes where he’s freaking out that she can’t stand, it’s the long, nearly silent, slow burn passages, where he’s quivering bug-eyed and ready to explode at any moment. She kept leaving the room to avoid his gaze. But she also kept coming back, as though unable to resist him. It was weird.

Woyzeck is based on Georg Büchner‘s unfinished play by the same name. Herzog shrewdly began filming immediately after having completed a long shoot on another film with the same cast and crew, and shot the whole movie in eighteen days, ensuring that everyone would be exhausted and slightly hysterical. The title character, played with nearly comical intensity by Kinski, is a hapless soldier abused by doctors, senior officers, and his lover. As he caroms from clinic to barracks to home in fits of effort to find some dignity, he becomes more and more crazed. Things do not end well.

Herzog’s mise-en-scène here is much flatter than usual, perhaps because he is conscious of the fact that he’s filming a stage play. The spaces and angles are tightly constrained, even in exterior shots; the lighting is theatrically artificial; the depth of field very shallow. The feeling, looking at the screen, is that all the action is happening in a box about three feet deep, as if the TV were a kind of puppet theater.

Not anywhere near my favorite Herzog film, but an archetypal example of Kinski’s style. And my own new best fiend, Sarah Kane, directed a version of the play in 1997, and I’m in a place right now where I’m looking for traces of Ms. Kane anywhere I can find them, because I’m deeply disappointed I wasn’t aware of her work prior to her death. There, I’ve said it, the awful true thing. Herzog is very good at putting me in a place where I can do that.


  1. I watched this on Saturday night, Woyzeck, and today it feels likeI viewed a silent film, a monster movie, and Woyzeck’s face todayis burned into my brain like somekind of R. Crumb head. I likedthe flickering lack of depth.I don’t know–it has a definate afterburn.

  2. How weird that we both came to this at the same time, David! We must have some kind of karmic queue connection.Your description of the after burn as being like a silent monster movie strikes me as dead on.

Leave a Reply