Of all the faculties unique to the human mind, the ability to discern and dissect artwork serves as the most fittingly enigmatic. Something as simple as a striped canvas can broadcast a digestible, yet open-ended message. In a way, the human consciousness — as well as art itself — is brought to life by the variability of perception.
Case in point, Werner Herzog’s Stroszek: a movie so unrepentantly abstruse that it manages to inspire millions, while remaining mostly infamous for its somber outlook on life.
Telling the story of an awkward, mildly retarded man named Bruno Stroszek (hauntingly portrayed by Bruno S.), Stroszek provides an outsider’s view of the “American dream”, and specifically its oft-ignored uncertainty. To a man ill-treated in his home country of Germany, the ideology of the American way of life provides a final safety net of sorts for the salvageable aspects of his optimism. When this net begins to fray, Bruno falls into a battle with the basic frameworks of life.
Himself caught in an incongruous loop, Ian Curtis, not unlike Stroszek, also gave in to these pressures. A few hours after watching the movie on the BBC, the lead singer of Joy Division hung himself in his kitchen, leaving his body for his estranged wife to find cold and limp, dangling from the ceiling of their London flat. As the weight of the world descended on Curtis, the damning footage of Stroszek may have provided the final push.
Not that this should come as any real shock. Curtis played the role of the tortured icon long before anyone had even heard the name Cobain. His insecurities, often emboldened by his epilepsy, pitted the musician in a back and forth dilemma as he balanced the monotony of his home life against the excesses of the road.
But while Curtis was rather clichéd in his rock star deviancy, what set the man apart was his unending guilt. He wanted to be happy with his wife and child, but he never could make it happen. The devil on his shoulder was always slightly louder than its adversary, trapping Curtis in a perpetual malaise. It’s hard to blame anyone already in a state of despondency for taking such measures, particularly after falling victim to Herzog’s hypnotic message.
A solitary chicken trapped, dancing in a box for money. Sonny Terry’s harmonica serving as a dirge while an indoctrinated duck plays the bass drum and a looping ski lift takes you nowhere except for back to where you started from.
A bizarre menagerie of discordant images and blatant symbolism, the ending to Stroszek is not only the best sequence Herzog ever filmed, but also one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of cinema. The trapping the titular character falls in to — the noise of malpractice and the letdown of a perceived dogma — throw the man into a loop, both literal and figurative, which finally forces him into action against the thrusts of habitual duress. Herzog presents a worst-case scenario, adding up the tolls of the daily grind.
It’s easy to see how Curtis, already dealing with an enraged disease, could plunge into the glass half-empty. He obviously identified with the character of Stroszek. Both suffered from the savage combination of emotional and physical hurdles, a pairing of all things suicidal. Herzog might as well have been dangling a glossy gold medallion back and forth across the singer’s eyes, daring the man to jump.
Yet even so, as haunting as Herzog’s film is, it also works fairly well as a motivator for change. If there were ever a movie to bust an audience out of a humdrum rut, it’s Stroszek. To less despondent groups, the film can provide a jump-start towards activity. To avoid being a dancing chicken is to grasp control of one’s destiny. To sidestep life’s inherent repetition is also to follow one’s dreams.
Legend has it that Herzog stumbled upon his infamous sideshow while scouting locations for his climax, eventually writing the scene into the script that night in his hotel room. Some of his staffers refused to take the set the day of filming, finding the grotesque, morally contentious fun house too much to take. Yet even in their objection lies a certain kowtow to the director’s message. The crew’s rebellion is itself an act of singularity. By being disturbed by the given metaphor, the dissenters themselves became its supreme, somewhat ironic justification.
In the end, playing Curtis’ actions against that of Herzog’s crew allows for a perfect encapsulation of art and subjectivity.
Good art, in all its different mediums, bends alongside an individual’s given personality. The same work can serve as an unwavering inspiration or the justification for evil — being wholly contingent upon a person’s basic skews. The artist’s intent often takes a backseat to his/her audience’s personal interpretations. Certainly J.D. Salinger never intended to provide a de facto bible for iconoclastic murderers, just as Herzog never meant to push Ian Curtis over the edge.
Yet, as it turns out, the truth is itself every bit as subjective as art. Reactions tend to bend reality towards a desired justification. We see in art what we want to see. Curtis saw death in Stroszek. Others see motivation. In the end it doesn’t really matter who is right. Herzog’s masterpiece will always persevere, because it never fails to take full advantage of the power intrinsically and symbiotically linked between artwork and the human psyche.
By Daniel Crown