THE CINEMATIC BODY OF BRUNO.S: ‘THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER OF CINEMA’

THE CINEMATIC BODY OF BRUNO.S: ‘THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER OF CINEMA’ 

 

This essay will discuss the two Werner Herzog films that featured a performer known as Bruno. S. These films were The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Stroszek (1977). This will be done using a non-representational model of film theory to explore the cinematic experience of the spectator. In order to accomplish this task the film itself will be examined as an affective body conceptualized through Herzog’s Cinematic Tableau and Bruno’s embodied performance.

WERNER

The films of Werner Herzog straddle the line between documentary and fiction (Ebert, 2010). He is perhaps more famous for his documentaries to contemporary film audiences, and he is often regarded as one of the more eccentric filmmakers in his approach and the stories that surround his productions. A good example would be pulling a handgun on Klaus Kinski to get him to continue filming. There is also the story of him hypnotising his crew on the set of Heart of Glass (1974). The most famous Herzog story is perhaps from the making of Fitzcarraldo (1982), in which he had a full-scale three hundred and sixty-ton steamboat hauled over a forty degree mountain slope in the Amazon jungle to mirror the grandiosity of an Opera. He seems to care more about the image he can create and effect he can have than the accuracy of a story. This is why the line between fact and fiction in any film of Werner Herzog is constantly shifting leaving his audience in a state of flux. Two of the best examples of the shifting balance in the filmic world of Werner Herzog would be Stroszek (1977) and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). The man who may define Werner Herzog as a man and as a filmmaker is an anonymous persona known to audiences only as Bruno. S.

BRUNO

Bruno was the son of a prostitute who physically abused him from birth until he was placed under state care. He was so shy and traumatised that they believed him to be retarded and placed him in a school for special needs children. He spent the next twenty-three years in and out of correctional institutions before finally entering the world in his late 20s. While he was not a trained actor he had the unique life experience, or perhaps a unique lack of life experience to embody the character of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek.

THE FILMS

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) was based on a German legend about a man who had never lived in society. Herzog cast Bruno because Bruno’s real life story mirrored the story of Kaspar Hauser. Where the film is telling the story of Kaspar it is also telling the story of Bruno who is to a degree not actually acting. He is ‘being’. Stroszek on the other hand was a film written and created especially for Bruno. The film was constructed around his life history and the environment that he lived in. This tells the story of Bruno in a modern setting where the man has no place in the world and therefore pursues the American dream only to realize that it is an illusion {Vernon, 1977 #5}. This film, like most Werner Herzog films draws a fine line between being a documentary and a fictional film. The one thing that is without question is the authenticity of Bruno’s performance and the embodiment of these characters. Bruno’s face and expression is unlike any performance in cinema.

 

FACT, FICTION AND THE AFFECT

While watching these films we are watching something that can affect on a level that we do not understand. This is because the emotions that we see on screen are real. Herzog did not even know a lot of his performers surnames. The hunters on the highway in Stroszek were not actors. They were just a couple of guys who pulled up when Herzog asked them if they wanted to film a scene. He never saw them again after they drove off. This was filmed in real time with no actors. Yet there is an authenticity here and there is something very real about this that transcends what we are used to seeing as an audience. It is in a state of flux where the spectator is never quite sure where they are within the filmic world of Werner Herzog (Gideon 1977).

HERZOG’S TABLEAU

Herzog holds his images for a long time. This allows the image to become a tableau that works its way into the audience. The opening scenes of Kaspar Hauser  for example opens with obscure shots of rivers and paddocks and a woman washing her clothes in silence. These scenes do not have anything to do with the rest of the film in a narrative sense. What they do is move the audience through a process from the obscurity of the outer world into the internalized world of Kaspar living in his cave with nothing but a toy horse. This enables the spectator to look at the world as an enigma, as something that does not make sense. It feels as if we are looking at the world through the eyes of a man who has never seen the world before. This is before we even meet Kaspar Hauser in his cave. As you can see from the pictures everything is just out of focus and slightly off balance.

 

In one of the greatest shots of Stroszek, Bruno stands with his back to the camera while he watches his mobile home taken away. This opens the scene up to a barren landscape with a telephone pole and a stray dog in the distance. The landscape of America is vast and open compared to the claustrophobia of the German suburbs. There is a sense of hopelessness that creeps into the audience. This is Bruno’s hopelessness. Herzog holds this scene until the bleakness of Bruno’s inner landscape is almost unbearable.   Within the framed shot we see Bruno taking up only a small portion. He is standing to the left and just below the centre of the frame. This shot taken even out of the context of the rest of the film still has an overwhelming affect. Within the context of the film and tied in with the affective force that is rooted in Bruno’s performance.

This is beginning of the climax that ends with the dancing chicken fading out to Sonny Terry’s blue grass harmonica tune. There is no ‘the end’ and there are no credits. The chicken keeps dancing. While it is easy to fall into the representational model of trying to sum up what the chicken means, Werner Herzog stated in the DVD Commentary “When I first saw the dancing chicken, I knew I was going to use it for a grand metaphor. I don’t know what that metaphor is” We can feel the despair that leads us into the final act. It is a foreboding sense of nothingness that comes from the landscape on Wisconsin.

This is not the only piece of music that Herzog uses to create his tableau. He juxtaposes two other sequences using Chet Atkins roots music. He uses the same piece of music to emphasise the happiness of coming to America and then to emphasize the despair of Bruno’s isolation and the way in which he was kicked around physically in Germany and then abused mentally in America. The musical pieces are exactly the same but the affect between the scenes is completely different. Because the scenes are completely different in tone the music changes in our perceptions.  The usage of the same music contrasted may only be evident after repeated viewings but the point is that the audience is changing along with Bruno and there is a shift in the perspective of the spectator. The landscape does not change. Before he comes to America the open land is seen as his freedom now he only sees how lonely freedom is. So he gets beat down by thugs in Germany,  beat down by the capitalist system of America where they take away his home and tell him to have a nice day and he is finally crushed by his own existential freedom. It is this perspective shift that makes this sequence such an amazing moment.

UNDIAGNOSED MADNESS

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser on the other hand is a tableau of madness and undiagnosed madness of the world. If everyone is mad then the sanest man, by contrast is the strangest. Therefore the sane man is actually the maddest man in the village. The original title: Everyman for Himself and God Against All sets up this film as deformed society. The man at the centre of the deformed society is a man of no social shaping. This man is the Deleuzian ‘body without organs’. He impacts every other body that he comes in contact with and yet is unconscious of his own bodily functions such as pain. A good example of this would be Kaspar placing his hand over a flame and being completely unaware that his hand is capable of being burned. Kaspar is the man without essence as he has not been constructed within the world. As Deleuze and Guattari explain the body without organs it is a process moving towards a course of continual becoming. The paradox is that body cannot break away entirely from the system it wants to escape from. Kaspar Hauser is the man who is born outside of the body of society and therefore has a body that impacts the larger system. He is not an organism that fits into the world. The man on the outside of society is a man of Solitude. Therefore Kaspar cannot be de-formed when entering society so late in life. He is in a way, an anomaly and a filter for the rest of us to step outside of what we conceive to be the truth of our lives.

The conventional performance that the cinemagoer is accustomed to seeing is not present in these films, but there is something else here that draws the viewer in and does not let them go. This is why after Thirty-Four years these films are still relatable and despite the hair cuts and cars featured in Stroszek they still feel contemporary. There is something ageless about this story of the outsider. The filmic body is still fresh. It still has life. The clothes and hair has changed but these characters have not aged. In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser we see the world as it was, it makes no sense to Bruno, and it makes little sense to the spectator. In Stroszek we are seeing ourselves from the outside in.

BRUNO”S PERFORMATIVE FORCE

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek are variations of the same story mirrored in two different time periods of men without culture (Roger 2007).  Without the cultural background Bruno is a person without the social formation that we use to define ourselves. He can be seen from two perspectives. On one side is an uninformed fool but on the other hand he may be more human than any of us. He only appeared in these two films and he is what Werner Herzog refers to as ‘the unknown soldier of the cinema’. Bruno. S has no name that was publicly known until his passing in 2010 (Ronald 2010).

Therefore the body of these films is built around the embodied performance of Bruno. In the Deleuzian sense the ‘body’ is any whole composed of parts that stand in relation to one another and can be affected by other bodies ((Ed) 2011). They are a reflection of Werner Herzog’s deep affection for this man. As a result these films are not about the stylization that endows most films. These films are about the way we suffer in silence. Yet this is not melodrama, as we would see in the films of Douglas Sirk. With Bruno, we are affected by true suffering. This is perhaps something that cannot be ‘acted’ or even expressed in language. True suffering is something that most of us never feel. It may actually be beyond explanation.

 

While some actors have the ability to transform into a role very few can truly embody a role. As Bruno can embody the man outside of society or the way Klaus Kinski could play a deranged madman with a god complex. As a result the film becomes an embodied performance. The locations in Germany were places that Bruno would actually frequent in real life and the personal props and the apartment belonged to Bruno. So for the sake of argument I will be referring to all of the characters played by Bruno as simply Bruno. Some of the articles were about Kaspar Hauser and some were about Stroszek but the characters were reflections upon the life of Bruno. Where Bruno was the embodiment of these characters the films were the embodiment of Bruno.

 

THE AFFECT

In the opening sequence there is a man emerging that we cannot quite make out until he walks past the camera. The camera still holds the shot of the prison gates for what feels like a long time after Bruno and the guard leave. Bruno is being released from prison. This is a long sequence where we see Bruno and a guard entering through two prison gates.

 

We see Bruno collecting his items from the guards before leaving. In this scene there is a single close up of Bruno that appears to be out of place with the rest of the scene. It looks a little bit like a blooper. From a lesser filmmaker or editor this may have looked like poor editing. This is because it feels disjointed and separate from the film. It is as if we get a glimpse into Bruno beyond the character and into the man. We see Bruno looking away from the camera and to a degree he is looking away from the audience. This was similarly done in Kaspar Hauser where Bruno appears to be aware of the camera and averts his gaze. Yet there are moments early in Kaspar Hauser where it feels as if Kaspar is watching us back. It is almost as if he can look through the camera and see the audience seeing him. For most actors this would be breaking character, or at least the fourth wall. For Bruno, this is the character that is out of sync with the world. He can see what we cannot. This may include us as viewing objects.

“Because Bruno is now entering Freedom”

This begins the film.  We see the world in one of the opening shots in a foggy inverted haze that makes what we see indecipherable. We do not know what we are seeing until the camera pulls to reveal that we are looking through a glass bottle hanging from the ceiling in Bruno’s cell. Bruno is staring through this water botte, behind the water bottle is a window, and behind the window there is what appear to be people digging in the prison yard. Similar to the prison gates we have a man who is perpetually behind walls just as the spectator is also behind a screen looking out through Bruno’s eyes trying to look back in. Therefore through Bruno, we can see ourselves.

Looking at what one does not immediately understand puts the spectator into a new mode of experience. From here they can understand what they have seen only after they have seen it. Our attention is then taken away from the water as we see that we are not seeing the water, we are now within Bruno’s performance.

The first thing he does after leaving the prison is go to a bar. He does this after his parole officer has begged him to stay away from alcohol. This is part of the cycle of Bruno. Just like being on the chairlift going round he continually reverts back to what he knows and what he appears to know is that he is on a  merry-go-round about that he cannot get off.

CINEMATIC POESIS

In Brad Prager’s ‘The Cinema of Werner Herzog’ (Prager 2007). He argues that Herzog moves beyond the prosaic and the rational into a Poesis. Herzog’s interests appear to not be in the facts. He appears to be searching for an aesthetic standpoint beyond our conventional means of experiencing the world. It is in the conjunction of music, images and poetic epigraphs that his aesthetic standpoint is achieved not through the accumulation of facts. Herzog wants to find the alternative, or outside position from where we can stand and view ourselves. The problem is that we can never stand outside; we can only imagine what it feels like to stand outside. Where some filmmakers would attempt to do this by standing back in judgment, as in they want us to look at ourselves to see how we can better humanity. Herzog on the other hand wants to see through eyes that are other than our own. These are the eyes of the animal or alien.

Aliens are what he continually refers to his characters as in interviews. His films feature animals to such a degree that they have become a Herzog trademark. A good example is the seven-month premature baby holding on to the Doctor. This is incredibly disturbing and yet strangely moving to see a human being that is so premature that it barely resembles a human being. The premature child appears almost alien. What was extraordinary about this scene was the way in which the doctor demonstrates to Bruno the will to survive and cling to life by lifting the child with the baby grasping his fingers.

 

By doing this we can look at the world through the eyes and ears of those that do not understand what they see or what they hear. This quest could be seen as transcendental or perhaps Herzog is the first post human filmmaker. Bruno is the lens for us to encounter our own inhumanity.

In the cinema of Herzog, language is a boundary that must be overcome. He attempts to overcome this with the ecstatic image and with poetry. However language is needed to identify the limits of language. For Herzog film is a poetic medium not a means for conveying information. In this way he constantly challenges our preconceptions of the cinematic form. He challenges genre boundaries in a way that forces us to re-evaluate and reassess our expectations and understanding of not only cinema but also ourselves.

(Ed), A. P. (2011). The Deleuze Dictionary Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Gideon, B. (1977). “The Man on the Volcano: A Portrait of Werner Herzog.” Film Quarterly 31(1): 2-10.

Prager, B. (2007). The Cinema Of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth. London, Wallflower Press.

Roger, C. (2007). ‘THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER’ Werner Herzog (1974) ; STORY OF THE SCENE. The Independent: 1.

Ronald, B. (2010). Obituary: Bruno Schleinstein: Actor and musician known as Bruno S, chosen by Herzog to play his social misfits. The Guardian: 30.

Vernon, Y. (1977). “Much Madness: Werner Herzog and Contemporary German Cinema.” The Hudson Review 30(3): 409-414.

 

Posted on May 20, 2012, in Essays and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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