Directed by: Werner Herzog.
Written by: Werner Herzog based on the play by Georg Büchner.
Starring: Klaus Kinski (Woyzeck), Eva Mattes (Marie), Wolfgang Reichmann (Captain), Willy Semmelrogge (Doctor), Josef Bierbichler (Drum Major), Paul Burian (Andres), Volker Prechtel (Handwerksbursche), Dieter Augustin (Marktschreier), Irm Hermann (Margret).
One of the reasons why almost all of Werner Herzog’s best films of the last 30 years are documentaries is because when he lost Klaus Kinski, he lost one of the only actors who was able to match the level of insanity that Herzog needed in his fiction films (the one exception is of course Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant:: Port of Call, New Orleans). The pair of them made five films together – of which Woyzeck was the third, and far and away the least, of these collaborations. There just isn’t very much here in this sleight film, about a man beaten down by life until he ends up murdering his wife. These two combined to make two of the all-time great portraits of madness – Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo – but Woyzeck never comes close to matching them, and I cannot help but think that perhaps Kinski is even miscast.
In the film, Kinski plays the title character – a put upon soldier, tormented by those above him in the army, for reasons the movie never really tries to explain (he is on an all pea diet for example, but no one will say why). He is pushed around, abused, beaten and disrespected – but it isn’t until his wife cheats on him with a drum major that he really, truly loses it – leading to a slow motion climax, which is just about the only thing in the film that works.
Kinski was, of course, brilliant at playing insane characters – perhaps because he was kind of nuts himself (Herzog’s documentary on him – My Best Fiend is a better use of your time than this, and documents their relationship). Here though, his Woyzeck seems insane at the start of the film, so his descent into madness doesn’t really mean much – he’s already there. If Woyzeck is supposed to be an everyman, driven insane by the system, pushing down on the common man, than the film fails – because Kinski never really seems normal here.
Herzog is adapting a play by George Buchner, but his screenplay is odd, as many scenes play out without much in the way of dialogue, making the action confusing, and Woyzeck’s motivations unknowable. The film was made in the immediate aftermath of Herzog and Kinski’s other (and better) 1979 film, Nosferatu – Kinski using the fatigue of that film to his advantage here. Yet the film never really comes together. It’s only 82 minutes long, and that slow motion climax really is something to behold – yet the film is more of interest to Herzog/Kinski completest than anyone else. You’d be better off watching anything else the pair did together than this one though.