Thoughts On: Stroszek - The Drowning Lullaby


Stroszek - The Drowning Lullaby

Thoughts On: Stroszek

Fresh out of prison, Bruno Stroszek attempts to change his life by moving from Berlin to Wisconsin with his friend, Eva.

I love this film. There's something oddly beautiful about it. Though I do think that comes with the fact that it's a Werner Herzog picture, the beauty of this film is subtle and is laced into the narrative through character, sound and direction also. The documentary feel of this film coupled with its exceptional arc of tragedy thus provide great commentary on the idea of hope. Despite the film seemingly being about the American Dream, I believe the strength of this narrative and the true meaning are found not in criticism (of the American Dream) but in a humble observation of human failure. To discuss this we'll have to take a quick look at the mechanics of the film and then under the hood of the presented tragic character arc. As mentioned, there is a documentary feel to this narrative derived from bursts of professional, stereotypically cinematic, aesthetics spliced in with rougher, spur of the moment, hand-held and imperfect sequences. This allows Herzog to play his audience like an instrument with the moments of beauty being emphasised by the natural feel, implying a preciousness and that moments of truth, of poignancy, of revelation are that much more important. In other words, the directorial style catches the eye and emotions off-guard, tricking them into believing what they see is real at the heaviest moments, but nonetheless captivatingly joyous in the more cinematic segments. This means that we really pick up on the documentary-esque direction in the third act. This parallels the growing absurdity of situations around Bruno, but more so his behaviours. All of this coalesces into a surrealistic, almost perfect, tone - into a texturally unorthodox, yet flawless film.

So, understanding the implication of the direction around the narrative, we have to pick up on the difference between the majority of the film and the last act as to get into the tragic path we're made to walk. The first two acts of Stroszek hold, visually and physically, the most dire constraints - we see Eva beaten and humiliated alongside Bruno to the point of fear driving the two out of the country. However, Herzog refuses to indulge in the emotional depths of these moments or sequences. His characters are foolhardy and tough as leather. Despite all they face, they retain a hopeful atmosphere, we are assured they can stand up and face the next day with an almost incomprehensible stature and focus - an optimism. And it's in the first two acts that we see Herzog's incredible control of tone. It's as if a pleasant lullaby is being sung over calamity as Bruno and Eva take all conflict in their stride, as all stakes are melted into a broth of aromatic hope. The paradox of this block of the film is soon revealed to be of structural genius. And it's here where Herzog teaches one of the greatest lessons on tragedy I've ever witnessed. He has his characters remain so optimistic, he doesn't let conflict consume his tragedy - not from the get-go. He has all conflict be meaningless, he has his characters take on the weight of the world and the film be a dark comedy until Bruno simply can't help but buckle, until he simply can take anymore. Herzog constructs a flawless and intrinsically poignant tragedy by pretending the film has no concept of suffering, disaster, hopelessness - all until the third act.  He then lets the dam burst and the billowing weight of the emotions risen over the narrative to drown out the film, leaving us without resolution, without a lasting punch in the gut. It's because of this that I love the film so much. Tragedy is usually one of two things. There's either a deject wading of emotions with characters being constantly beaten into the ground, or there's a rise and fall of the good and bad with the biggest swing of sorrow being the last. We see a combination of these two ideas in Stroszek, but what is so significant about it is the reactions of the characters. They aren't beaten into the ground despite the constant ebb of shallow fortunes, they stand tall. And the final swing of sorrow is put into motion and struck by their own hubris. The world does not fall in on them, they seem to brave a storm to the edge of Earth before paddling themselves over the precipice. This leaves us without the gut punch of abjection as would be seen in something like Requiem For A Dream, but with a melancholy yearning for absolution.

It's that lasting point of the film that makes clear the lack of commentary on an idea such as the American Dream. There is no externalised blame to be sought, there is no physical lashings Bruno or Eva take in Wisconsin like they did in Berlin, instead it's a spiritual pain, a mental torture applied with fatalistic smiles, that brings the couple to their knees. They betray themselves with naivety, but remain blinded as they (Bruno mainly) seek to point the finger. In seeing this side to the film you are left questioning the who, what, when, wheres and hows of the narrative, essentially: why has this story been told to us? Are we being told of the American Dream? If not, is this a film about fate? Well, as touched on, this is what Bruno believes - he sees fate to be the demon on his back. And in reference to Grizzly Man we could pick up on Herzog's philosophy of the world as a hard and cruel game of probability. In doing such, and in taking the final images of the film as pivotal...

... we can see Bruno as the expression of an absurd world, as a body conditioned, by said world, for failure - just as this chicken has been conditioned to dance. What this transforms the narrative into is a singular question of our human construction. Through Bruno, Herzog asks us why spiritual, emotional and mental pain can stab so much deeper into our complex than physical pain. The implication of such a question expands exponentially into a conjecture intrinsic to human thinking, one that is rife throughout our history. The conjecture simply assumes: we have not been made for this world. We can see this idea as attributable to anything to do with spirituality, belief or religion, as connected to absolutely anything that does not accept the constrains of a finite now in a mundane, easily accepted, reality. We see this idea in the last image of the chicken. The concept of conditioning juxtaposed with Bruno's end suggest that the world has built him, has contorted him into a mould to break. The deep focus on Bruno's intangible sufferings further suggests that there is a disconnect between him and the world because his mind senses this contortion - the world conditioning him, giving him what it wants, not what Bruno needs. This is an idea I've picked up on many times, most clearly with The Matrix (link here) but the mind essentially perceives the world with a convoluted grasp on the infinite. Humans construct ideas such as happiness, success, wealth and so on, understanding that they can always have more, that the utmost capacity of these notions cannot be fulfilled. Such seems nonsensical. But, this only emphasises the disconnect between the external world and the internal perception of a person. We want more than the world can provide us. This encompasses everything about the last act.

But, what about the first two? Why and how is the tone of the movie so happy? Why and how do Eva and Bruno keep their chins up in Berlin? The answer to this is simple and is actually given to us in the opening. Bruno starts off in prison. Through his upbringing, the the choices he made, he ended up in a cage, quite literally suppressed by society. But, as he says to his friends in prison - I don't want to leave. So much like, Brooks in Shawshank Redemption...

... Bruno finds comfort and a home in prison. Taking this hand in hand with the life he deals with free in Berlin, we can understand why Bruno needs no back story - all it would tell us is that he has learnt to accept the beatings the world gives him. When in Berlin he can take his physical tortures because that's what he's been raised for, conditioned for, ultimately leaving him a chicken out of his dancing box when he journeys for America. What he does is tell himself his reality will change, that he is leaving the physical constraints of Earth-upon-Berlin to this brand new place apparently on another planet, in a different galaxy, in a different universe and with completely different physical laws. This may seem far-fetched and silly, but this is the best way we can actually understand how his mind unconsciously perceives his situation. He fools himself into believing firstly that he is not built for this world and secondly that he can escape it. This turns The American Dream  into His American Dream. And this is why it's important to not see this movie as a commentary on a perceived American promise. If the American Dream is a lie, then it is a subjective one, one we may tell ourselves.

The lasting idea to take away from this is of trying to start again. If Bruno accepted that the world is harsh, that human existence doesn't intrinsically change when you move from one point on Earth to another, he wouldn't have tried to start again somewhere else, but have worked on an internal upheaval and adjustment. He would have understood that the only difference between Berlin and Wisconsin on a personal level was how he behaved in those places, how he saw the world. He accepted that he built a shitty reality for himself in Berlin, but he refused to accept that he has to build a better one in Wisconsin, that it wouldn't just be handed to him. Through Stroszek we are then seeing a recognition of human failure as being a product of a lie we tell ourselves. In truth there is no failure, there is no success, there are only ever good feelings and bad ones. Words such as perfection, destruction, happiness, melancholia, home, foreign, comfort, suffering, are convoluted representations of good feelings and bad feelings - nothing more. To clutch too dearly to these terms, these flourished complexities of a simpler human condition, is to live under a veneer, a facade and fabrication that humanises the world - that tints it the colours of our unconscious uncontrol. To bring things back to the beginning of the essay, the lullaby that drowns out calamity in the opening acts is also the tune that asphyxiates the last - it's Bruno perception that washes over this film. The resultant reflection onto the audience is then a prompt to hear the songs we sing ourselves, to work on our pitch and keep kicking as to keep from sinking in this tone deaf void.

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