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DVD: Herzog and Woyzeck

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Woyzeck, Klaus Kinski, Eva Mattes, directed by Werner Herzog (released on August 15, 2000)
Werner Herzog's film adapation of Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck has long been on my must-see list, principally because this depressing and forward-looking play was also the inspiration for Alban Berg's hallucinatory opera Wozzeck. The play is derived from real events in Leipzig, in 1821, when Johann Christian Woyzeck, a barber and former soldier, had murdered his mistress, Frau Woost. His lawyer's defense of insanity was rejected by the court, and Woyzeck was hanged publicly in Leipzig's market square in 1824. The case was written up in a medical journal, to which Büchner's father, a doctor, subscribed. Büchner completed the play in 1837, but it would not be published until 1879 and not performed until 1913, in Munich.

Berg saw the first performance of the play in Vienna in 1914 and immediately began sketching out plans for the opera, eventually completing his own libretto. World War I delayed his plans. The full score was completed in 1922, the cost of which was underwritten by Alma Mahler, to whom the work was dedicated. Wozzeck is one of those modernist masterpieces that some people love to hate -- it has never been mounted by Washington National Opera and only twice in a place as disposed toward modernism as Santa Fe Opera (1966 and 2001) -- but, like it or not, Berg changed the history of opera with this work. Olivier Messiaen said that he long avoided composing an opera because he was not certain that it was possible after Wozzeck.

Werner Herzog's film adaptation of the play follows Klaus Kinski as the tortured soldier. We are introduced to his dismal life in the opening credit sequence: to the accompaniment of a poorly tuned hack string quartet sawing away, Woyzeck is run through his military paces, doing exercises and getting his face ground into the mud by a booted officer. The expression on Kinski's face in closeup is disturbing. We first hear Woyzeck as he is shaving the captain's face: as he responds to the captain's questions, he stutters over the word Geld (money). As far as I can tell, Büchner's play does not indicate that Woyzeck has a stutter, but Kinski's performance is on the money, revealing that the character's grasp on reality is slipping because of the Doctor's sadistic experiments.

Occasionally Herzog has Kinski look directly at the camera, speaking to the audience, as in the memorable words that Büchner puts in Woyzeck's mouth when he confronts Marie about her affair with the Drum-Major: "Jeder Mensch ist ein Abgrund; es schwindelt einem, wenn man hinabsieht. Nun, Unschuld, du hast ein Zeichen an dir" (Every man is an abyss; it makes you dizzy to look into it. Now, Innocence, you have a mark on you). When you know Berg's opera, it is fascinating to see Büchner's play, in an attempt to see what the composer experienced when he first saw the story on which he would make a mark.

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