The American Experience on Film Blogathon: Stroszek (1977)

This post is part of The American Experience on Film Blogathon, hosted by ME. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE.

One of the most interesting parts of the reality TV show 90 Day Fiance is watching the reaction of the non-American half of the couple to their first taste of actually being in America.

Almost invariably, their expectation of America falls far short of the reality. In some cases, they soon start second-guessing their decision to come to America and may even long to return to their native land, all while friends and family members of their partners assume their motivation for marrying a citizen is to get a green card.

Popular culture has oversold America to the rest of the world, as we pretty much reinforce the myth of America as some magical land where money flows, opportunities abound, and even people with modest means can live well. The streets aren’t just paved with gold, we tell the world and ourselves, but with happiness, if you’ve got what it takes to find it. While some are willing to endure sacrifices so their children may one day have a better life, many newcomers find themselves disappointed when they arrive on our shores for a new life.

Non-American filmmakers have examined this phenomenon many times, as they have characters arrive in America full of hope only to have their dreams quickly dashed. One of the most memorable is German director Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek.

The film opens with Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) being released from prison in Berlin. His jailers exhort Bruno to change his drinking habits so he can avoid prison in future. Bruno’s first stop is a bar, where he sees his friend Eva (Eva Mattes), a prostitute, beaten by her pimps. He offers her a chance to crash at his flat, which has been kept for him by his landlord Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz).

Bruno returns to his profession as a street musician but Eva’s pimps won’t stop harassing her. Mr. Scheitz suggests they go to America where he has a nephew who is a garage mechanic. At first, they seem happy in their new lives, but reality sets in when they can’t make the payments for their mobile home. Eva returns to sex work and leaves Bruno. The home and its contents are taken by the bank. Scheitz and Bruno attempt to rob a bank, which ends badly for both of them.

This synopsis of the plot doesn’t even begin to convey the unique experience of watching Stroszek. For one thing, most of the actors are not professional and most of the characters bear the names of their portrayers. Bruno S. was a survivor of various mental institutions (for a portion of his life under Nazism). Herzog drew on details of his life for the film’s character.

You can’t call this a comedy or even a black comedy, but there are scenes that are both funny and horrific.

Herzog picked the town of Plainfield, Wisconsin to shoot part of the film because that was the hometown of serial killer Ed Gein. He and fellow filmmaker Errol Morris had planned to go there to dig up his grave.

Yes, really.

One doesn’t watch a Herzog film for the same old/same old.

Herzog doesn’t idealize Berlin—West Germany in the late 1970s comes across as a depressing place. The America he shows is one we rarely see in popular culture outside reality TV like 90 Day Fiance and Tiger King. Truck stop diners, quirky personalities, neighbors fighting over a tiny plot of land for decades, capitalism that comes knocking on your door with a beatific smile just before it takes everything away from you.

Herzog’s films are almost always about loners who have dreams they can’t relinquish no matter how unrealistic or how costly it is to attain them. Bruno’s dreams of America barely last past landing in the country (when his pet mynah bird is confiscated).

The ending of Stroszek is probably the most famous of Herzog’s oeuvre. Let’s just say it involves an amusement park run by Native Americans, a frozen turkey, a burning truck, and a dancing chicken. One would think that would result in something hilariously funny. In the hands of an artist looking at America from the outside, it becomes something uniquely American.

5 thoughts on “The American Experience on Film Blogathon: Stroszek (1977)

  1. Hi Debbie! I’m almost ready to publish my review of ‘The Girl Who Spelled Freedom’. But I might submit my entry a little bit late, which I apologize.

  2. A friend recommended Stroszek and I watched it. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes horrific, as you wrote. But it is above all a great portrait of the USA through the unique eyes of Werner Herzog, a eccentric and yet lucid master. Great review for a great blogathon!

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