FEATURING: , Eva Mattes, Clemens Scheitz
PLOT: When his elderly landlord suggests that he, recently-released prisoner Bruno, and their mutual friend Eva escape to America, the trio head to Railroad Flats, Wisconsin; there, they start living the American Dream, only to have it reposessed.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The unlikely plot, combined with the unlikely locales (Berlin and the fictional “Railroad Flats”), further combined with unlikely leads (mostly non-actors) results in a strange story—but not-so-strange a movie. The tale being told is a weird one; the movie itself is a (commendably) straightforward telling of it.
COMMENTS: As road movies go, this one is quite the odd duck. This is, of course, to be expected from one of the great oddball directors of the ’70s and ’80s (the reliably offbeat Werner Herzog) who concocted this film specifically for one of the great eccentrics of the last century, the vagrant/street-performer/poet/musician/non-actor known as Bruno S. Like the lead, most of the characters are played by people who did not act for a living, and as such they give their story a layer of truthfulness.
In fact, much of the movie has a documentary vibe. Straight-forward mise-en-scène, realistic lighting, medium shots, and even occasional glances at the camera from Bruno all combine to provide a sensation one is watching, as it were, a “movie-movie” as it flows in and out of a “documentary movie”. Various avenues are explored by this non-documentary: alienation, family, emotional and physical survival, but most of all, the American Dream. The simple joys of this dream, however, quickly give way to the grinding vexations of bleak reality. Toward the end of the movie, Bruno makes a telling remark as he listens to an English conversation he doesn’t understand. He mutters, “I’m really pessimistic about all this.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a man seemingly transplanted from another time (if not another world), Bruno S. copes with his surroundings as ably as his innocence allows. The audience first meets him when he’s being released from jail, imprisoned for unspecified “alcohol-related crimes.” He has only two friends: his landlord, Clemens Scheitz, who not only kept Bruno’s room as he left it but also watched after his Myna bird; and Eva, a much-abused prostitute who may or may not be Bruno’s lover. In Berlin, their lives are semi-tragic but comfortingly mundane. Once in America, Bruno doesn’t so much eventually “lose it” as much as he realizes as there isn’t really any place for him to quietly exist. As events unfold, his American experiences become increasingly strange, until everything unravels. His home is repossessed by the world’s friendliest banker, his old friend goes around the bend and gets arrested, and he himself ends up being hunted by the police. His escape through the most crudely conceived tourist attraction imaginable—which includes not only a “Fire Chief” rabbit but also two (2!) musical chickens—stands as one of Herzog’s stranger set-pieces.
Both location and society seem out to get our endearing protagonist. In the film’s first half, his environment conspires to force him to flee his home; in the film’s second half, it conspires to take away the only people he cares about. Somehow, Herzog makes great swaths of the movie either hilarious or just plain delightful to watch. While a happier trajectory for the film would have been enjoyable, Herzog’s nuanced cynicism makes the film, for all its eccentricity, feel very real.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: