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Through A Lens Darkly...

Stroszek Directed and written by Werner Herzog Now playing at the Orson Welles

By Joe Contreras

GERMAN CINEMA has pretty much emerged over the past few years from the considerable shadow once cast over the Continent by its French and Italian rivals. As names like Fassbinder and Rohmer wind their way into the consciousness of committed American moviegoers, the enthusiastic receptions accorded their latest works have begun to assume all the earmarks of a modern-day Emperor's New Clothes parable. The New York film critie cliques seem all too ready to applaud the arrival of a new "school" of film. And once the Sarrises and Gilliatts affix their all-important seal of approval, off go the chic-conscious lemmings ready and willing to plunge into a two-hour morass of clipped dialogue and plots that never really unfold but merely plod.

Werner Herzog serves as a textbook example of this Teutonic "New Wave." His work demands a special kind of viewer, a sensibility that can accommodate the warped and the damned souls of this world. His 1972 film Aguirre: The Wrath of God suggested Herzog's affinity for dwelling on the sordid side of things; watching a demented Spanish conquistador in search of his El Dorado foam at the mouth for the better part of 90 minutes, one could sense a sublimated sadism at work in the movie.

But whereas Aguirre could be dismissed as the flawed effort of a young filmmaker who had seen one too many Bergman films for his own good, no such allowances can be or should be made for Stroszek. Five years of reflection and presumed growth have taken Herzog a painfully short distance, and this exercise in depression and squalor has mired Herr Werner still deeper in the quicksand of the art film syndrome. Stroszek is an aimless film about aimless people, society's losers who spend their lives groping for a promised dream that goes unfulfilled. Set in the slums of Berlin. Stroszek begins on a note of hope as the film's protagonist gains his release from a local mental institution. Played by a German actor going under the nom de theatre of Bruno S., the Stroszek character quickly becomes an awkward and self-conscious symbol of the social orphan. Herzog sketches the despair and alienation of the vagrant with an unflinching vengeance.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this realism-at-all-costs approach, as Midnight Cowboy amply demonstrated some years ago. But when the director withholds compassion as he ladles on the seaminess, serious reservations about the creative process, as well as its final product, become justified.

A shared sense of degradation drives an abused prostitute (Eva Mattes) into Stroszek's well-meaning embrace, but the alcoholic simpleton can offer her little protection against the periodic brutality meted out by two utterly depraved pimps who enjoy yanking her around Stroszek's flat by her frizzed hairs. A whimsical old man (Clemens Scheitz) turns up with the all-too-familiar notion of moving to the United States to escape the misery, and this implausible threesome sets off together in search of The Better Life. Predictably enough, their Midwestern El Dorado proves as illusory as Aguirre's.

SETTING ASIDE an evening to endure this sort of film sounds bad enough in theory; the reality is even worse. Herzog does not film scenes, he leers at them, trying to extract every droplet of meaning and mood his flabby creative muscles can muster. And the sluggish screenplay gives little relief. You never get the feeling that much has been lost in the translation because there isn't much to be lost in the first place. That Herzog can summon the raw nerve to inflict this unredeeming and unredeemable trash on an audience speaks volumes about what obligations he feels as an artist; that American critics pay homage to such charlatans and their non-movies says even more about the state of their art and the keenness of their judgment--or lack thereof.

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