By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Germans relocate to Wisconsin.
Bruno (Bruno S.) has recently been released from prison and while warned to stop drinking as a condition for his parole he immediately goes to a local bar. It is there that he meets Eve (Eva Mattes) a prostitute in an abusive relationship with her husband (Burkhard Driest). Bruno offers to allow her to move into his apartment, but this angers her husband and her pimp (Wilhelm von Homburg) who break into the apartment and terrorize Eva and Bruno making them believe that the only way they can escape the harassment is by moving to America, which we they do along with their elderly neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz). They presume everyone is the USA is rich and life will be easy, but find that not to be the case.
The story was based loosely on the real-life experiences of its star and the script written specifically for him by director Werner Herzog as a conciliation for not casting him in Woyzeck as originally intended. Since Bruno had already taken a leave of absence from his job at a steel mill to star in that one Herzog decided to make it up to him by writing this script in a matter of 4 days and then filming it on-location in Plainfield, Wisconsin because that was where the notorious serial killer Ed Gein had lived.
The story should’ve been a complete downer as it focuses on some very depressing realities, but instead, thanks to the genius of Herzog, one comes away from it feeling almost upbeat at all the quirky humor that gets incorporated in. The most memorable moment, which the rest of the crew found highly offensive and refused to film forcing Herzog to do it himself, happens near the end when Bruno travels to North Carolina and uses the last of his money to insert coins into arcade exhibits featuring chickens inside cages that dance and play the piano. The amusing element from this comes when the police finally arrive on the scene and are more concerned with getting the chicken to stop dancing than with the welfare of Bruno.
I also enjoyed the moment when an auto mechanic (Clayton Szalpinski) decides to do his own oral surgery by using the same pliers that he fixes cars with to remove a painful tooth in his mouth. While more blood was needed, as there should’v been streams of it coming out of his mouth, but isn’t, it’s still quite darkly funny and was ‘inspired’ by a true-life scene in the 1972 documentary Spend it All in which a Cajun in Louisiana does the same thing to his teeth, which amazed Herzog so much when he saw that movie that it compelled him to work the scene into one of his stories.
The jabs at America are expectedely negative and to some degree are on-target while at other points goes too far. Watching the trio become overly excited at seeing their new trailer home driven onto a vacant lot and acting like this was a sign that they had finally ‘made it big in America’ is certainly sardonically funny. Yet the scene with two farmers holding rifles as they plow a field in their tractors ready to shoot the other one if either dared touch a small strip of disputed land played too much into the stereotype that Europeans have of Americans and really wasn’t needed especially since it had nothing to do with the main story.
Bruno S.’s performance, who was never formally trained as an actor, is boring as he conveys the same facial expression all the way through where a more seasoned actor could’ve given the role more needed nuance. Scheitz was an amateur actor as well, but his short stature and overall goofy appearance made him a fun part of every scene he’s in while with Bruno that same quality doesn’t exist. If anything Eva has the widest character arc and the film should’ve evolved around her instead.
Herzog casts a lot of non actors in secondary roles as well. I’m not sure if this was done for budgetary reasons, or just played into his long-standing desire to be experimental, but the results aren’t completely effective. I did however enjoy Scott McKain, an auctioneer in real-life, who plays the part of a bank employee that comes to visit the trio in their trailer home to inform them of their delinquent payments and yet no matter how bad the news is that he must convey he always manages to remain upbeat and peppy when he says it.
The film, which has been rightly placed in Steven Schneider’s ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’ is original in so many ways that it deserves to be seen just for the oddity it is and I really have no complaints with its avant-garde style, which even today comes off as fresh and inventive, but I was confused about why the Glen Campbell song ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ got played so much. The lyrics are never heard, but the melody is and yet there’s no connection to the city of Phoenix in the story, for awhile I thought that was where they’d ultimately end-up, but they never do, so hearing it played so much is out-of-place.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: May 20, 1977
Runtime: 1 Hour 48 Minutes
Director: Werner Herzog
Studio: New Yorker Films
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube