From Europe to US – From Narcissistic Self-image to Narcissistic Systemic Logic

Bruno – Now we are in America and I thought everything would be better and we would reach our goal. But no. Bruno’s getting pushed aside as if he didn’t exist.
Eva – Nobody kicks you here.
Bruno – No, not physically. Here they do this spiritually… They do it so politely and with a smile. It’s much worse.

People like Bruno Stroszek (the main hero of the Herzog’s film) for centuries considered themselves to be of a spiritual breed – they didn’t have any interest in living an everyday life of reproducing, accumulating property and feeling proud about it. What they really liked to do is to philosophize (“Where my piano and my accordion will go after my death?”), play music and make sharp remarks about life. They were kind and compassionate; they had an interest in the human soul. They were helpless in front of the strong and predatory people – were abused and humiliated by the authorities and thugs. And they were dreaming of promised lands. Bruno’s particularity among this breed of human beings “not of this world” was that he more often appeared in “dangerous situations” – for example, he very much needed the presence of feminine tenderness nearby, or he couldn’t resist the kisses from sips of alcohol. He helped Eva, and Eva helped him, and under the pressure of the circumstances they and the incredible Mr. Scheitz, the neighbor and patron, decided to emigrate to US.
“The old world”
“The new world”

The prison official explains Bruno the dangers of “bad behavior”. As always such moralizing lecturing implies that people transgress because they either don’t know what they shouldn’t or they don’t understand when smart people try to explain to them the wisdom of life. The composition of this shot explains the psychological context of “moral instruction”: while Bruno is positioned as the object of the light of moralistic wisdom reaching him through the window, representative of law is as if part of this light, a mediator between it and Bruno (while at the same time he is the very darkness of this light). He, as if, knows the both worlds, of wisdom (“people should behave well, not badly”) and of the penitentiary. It is a position which is winning in the both worlds, the transitory and the absolute. That’s why moralistic instructions continue forever in spite of being completely meaningless.

Here we see apparition of the old world “authorities”. But they are real and are the immediate reason for Eva and Bruno’s emigrating to US.

Thugs are in action. But these tormentors are not just regular hooligans – they stage their actions making it aesthetically impressive performances. They are kind of artists of intimidation, harassment, torture and humiliation.

A new world authority, on the other hand, is personified by the clerk of money (the impeccably and painfully polite bank clerk).

Bruno as a new-American

Amidst American pop-prosperity Eva unexpectedly became depressed.

In the context of European life Bruno with his helplessness and harmlessness seemed to Eva amusing and touching. She felt a compassionate tenderness for him, but…

…in Wisconsin she lost the ability to appreciate him as just a human being (a bit more peculiar than others). Here we see Bruno trying to express in front of Eva his emotional pain in the new country. Pay attention to this opening of the drapery on Eva’s side of the shot that leads to a wall. It is Herzog’s point about her future. For Bruno even this opening to nowhere is not an option.

Mr. Scheitz, with his “organic” – disinterested scientific curiosity is lost between American highways and hunters with their weapons and trophies.

Bruno’s last steps in the new land, on stilts of technology, of course.

Zoo-technological American future – the apotheosis of the film

The chicken-dancer for the double-reward – grain for the dancer and money for the owner of the business

The chicken piano-player

The chicken soul of the piano-player

This photo of Werner Herzog doesn’t belong to the period he was working on “Stroszek” but we’ll interpret what we see here in the spirit of this film. Herzog is squeezed between two powers signified by his two pointing fingers (powers he depicts in the film) – traditional (more directly applied) and more money-oriented. As Stroszek, Herzog is also squeezed between two countries, the one we came from, and our new home, between two styles of oppression, one is directly violent and the other is economically manipulative. We can especially appreciate Herzog’s honesty in “Stroszek” today, in a time of shameless triumph of money reasoning over human rights, human soul and human compassion.

As it is depicted in “Stroszek”, the ultimate goal of power in both worlds, old and new, is identical, but the style of power is different – in a new world it’s not direct extortion of money but it is financial trickery of extortion in a masked form (including seduction into financial dependency). Bruno Stroszek understood the difference pretty quickly but he was shocked by the strength and cynicism of power in the new land not less than he was back in Europe. And he once again didn’t have a productive answer to the monstrosity of the power (Bruno Stroszek personifies the psychological weakness of intellectuals as a type of human beings).

There is an existential flaw in “intellectuals” – it is their particular narcissistic complex. Powerful people are narcissistic in a sense that they imply they have a right to subdue other people while the weaker (usual) people are narcissistic because they imply that they belong to the best anthropological category of people in the world (the best nation, race, political system, etc.) But people like Bruno equally imply that they have the right to authentically vegetate on a periphery of life – it never comes to their mind that they (with their “spiritual” eccentricity) could have an encounter with life, get a perspective on life from their particular vantage point, to try to influence it. In comparison with his passive (although stubborn) position vis-à-vis life in Germany, Bruno’s position in US became much more observant and self-reflective and mature. Now he is not a passive victim of thugs. Now he is capable of taking his destiny into his own hands. But still he is not able to communicate his experience to the society – he needs Herzog to do this for him.

Bruno’s emigration and his destiny cannot be understood without Eva’s presence in his life. What is her path toward the adaptation to the new world – which appeared to be like the old one in a new form? In Germany, where she worked for her pimps (authoritarian masters), Eva was also as a human being attracted to them. Let’s not rush to dismiss her dedication to her masters as dedication of Germans to the Fuhrer or Russians to Stalin (or the culturally uneducated Americans to Bush Junior). In authoritarian/totalitarian circumstances the person is limited in his/her choice of the objects of value. In most cases it is the same objects that dominate you! You try to love the one who dominates you! It is exactly your “free” choice in a situation of exploitation and non-freedom! Eva wanted her masters to be happy with her. She wanted to be appreciated, not just used. She wanted to deserve their appreciation. Like slave who tries to please master is in reality unconsciously dreaming of becoming for the master more than just a slave, Eva wanted to be loved, she sincerely tried to love. That’s why she cannot leave her pimps as soon as they want to continue to exploit her.

After meeting Bruno, her human attachment to the pimps gave way to human attachment to Bruno connected with her loving his kindness, his humanity and eccentricity. She felt she likes to help him; she wanted to save him from these two scoundrels – her bosses. But after their emigration situation is started to change. Now she lived in “free country”. She started to work in economically efficient way. Now she didn’t have any “masters” to give them the money she earned. Now she works for herself, and she is her own promoter – she enlarges the chain of her business contacts. But this work for herself made her somehow unable to feel that she cares about Bruno – it made her grow out of the taste to enjoy him disinterestedly, to tolerate his awkwardness, his particularity.

Bruno was a beneficiary of Eva’s relations with her pimps – he was so much of a better person than they and to help him had so much more sense than to care about them. But amidst the American prosperity and work and friendly relations – in comparison with this entire bravura energetic and athletically optimistic environment the disinterested relationship started to be felt as a burden: something excessive and even creepy, something outside of pragmatic reward and positivist gratitude. Bruno’s destiny was decided without anybody making any decisions about it.

Bruno never was able to spiritually confront the world. His solipsism is too narcissistic to make him care about a wider world of human life. He stages his death with a desperate pomposity of an artistic improvisation. He is saying good buy to the world with the apocalyptic images of the world’s profanity and meaninglessness.

There is something similar between Stroszek as an existential artist at the end of the film and Herzog’s imagery throughout “Stroszek” when signifier stands even more “fetishistically” untouchable after its signified is unlocked and released by interpretation. When semantic energy is squeezed from the image (when image is understood) it doesn’t make it lose its erected wholesomeness. Visual images of “Stroszek” are like a chain of mountain peaks staying in our memory after Bruno is gone and the film has ended. The creator survives the doomed civilization by the semantic density and compact beauty of his images.

Real American poetry

American future

Posted on Dec 9 2014 –   “Stroszek” (1977) By Werner Herzog  by Acting-Out Politics