Forty-year-old Franz Woyzeck (Klaus Kinski) is a lowly private in the German Army and much assaulted, psychologically at least, on all sides. He works as the manservant to his Captain (Wolfgang Reichmann), a man who finds Woyzeck fascinating with his particular worldview of suffering both in this world and the next. Today he shaves his master, dutifully listening to his opinions on having too much time to know what to do with and suchlike, and agreeing with whatever he says, but Woyzeck's take on life is more than a curiosity: it is his way of coping with his existence, and when the pressures on him grow too much to bear, tragedy is waiting...
This film, begun straight after writer and director Werner Herzog and star Kinski had completed their Nosferatu remake, was originally to star Bruno S., the man who had helped bring the title character to life in Herzog's masterpiece, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. You can see why the original choice would have fit Bruno's style with its protagonist at odds with the world and treated as either a curio or someone to be taken advantage of, but Kinski's enervation due to his exhausting vampire role works in Woyzeck's favour.
Based on an unfinished, early nineteenth century play by Georg Büchner, the story, or what there was of it, had been filmed before and would be filmed again, but as it was a Herzog-Kinski collaboration and such an event had indicated something special, this was the best known version. Unfortunately as a strike against society it comes across as unfocused, with the complexity of its title character's motives fatally difficult to pin down. That's not to say it's without interest, indeed, with its long takes it verges on the hypnotic, but it's a lesser work from these two men.
Woyzeck may be regarded with amusement by the Captain, but for his Doctor (Willy Semmelrogge), he's an item of medical study, the human incarnation of a lab rat. He has been on a diet of peas for the past few months, doctor's orders, and to the physician he's something to be poked and prodded, both literally and mentally. Woyzeck is treated no better than the cat the Doctor throws out of the window to see if it will land on its feet, and when he catches the animal to prevent it coming to harm, his subsequent panic attack prompts the Doctor to more examinations.
If anyone has any real affection for poor old Woyzeck, it's his wife Marie (Eva Mattes), and they both have a young child to look after. Yet Marie loves a man in uniform, and whether her husband is inside the uniform doesn't really matter, with the result that she begins an affair with the Drum Major (Josef Bierbeichler), a far more confident and commanding example of manhood. When Woyzeck discovers what has been happening behind his back, well, let's say he doesn't take it too well, and as he is no match for the Major it's Marie who suffers as the film climaxes in a slow motion act of violence. Kinski makes this worth seeing, with deep anguish haunting his face for practically the whole running time; he lets you understand why Woyzeck lashes out, even though you can't sympathise with his actions.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.