Stroszek, Werner Herzog (1977)

An excellent example of how illuminating it can be to see your own country through the eyes of a foreigner. Stroszek is played by Bruno Schleinstein, the severely damaged man Herzog so brilliantly or revoltingly exploited or rescued (depending on your perspective) in his The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser in 1974. Stroszek, an alcoholic petty criminal and busker, flees the narrow cobbled alleys of old Europe with a funny old professor-type in a beret (whose merry decrepitude reminded me of the great homeless chef in Tampopo) and a cow-eyed prostitute who’s tired of being beaten by her pimp. The three of them arrive in the new world, buy a car, and drive to the middle of nowhere in frozen flat Wisconsin. The American dream consists of weak beer, bad food, sexual exploitation, lousy jobs, tv game shows, truck stops, racism, shag carpet, predatory lenders, and dark gray skies flicking out hard snow. Eventually, Stroszek ends up at a roadside tourist trap with a frozen turkey under one arm and a shotgun under the other, watching electrocuted animals do tricks. Dancing chicken, rabbit driving a fire truck, duck playing a drum. The soundtrack careening hysterical harmonica and hollers of Sonny Terry. They say Ian Curtis watched this just before he hung himself, and Sarah Kane references it in the last play she wrote before she hung herself: “The chicken won’t stop dancing.” Watch it with a friend.

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Der Müde Tod, Fritz Lang (1921)

The English translation of the title is “Destiny.” Isn’t that sad? “Weary Death” would have been so much better. Here a young bride is robbed by Death of her vibrant young husband, and rather than capitulate to grief, she gets all up in Death’s face and demands a chance to bring her man back to life. Death is weary of being constantly seen as the bad guy–hey, he says, I’m just doing my job!–and consents to give the young woman a chance to win her husband back from the dead. Three chances, actually, the classical number of tries given by genies and folk tales the world over, and indeed this is a thoroughly bewitching and enchanting tale from the young master Lang, made when he was barely thirty years old. Featuring lots of wonderful cutting-edge special effects, my favorite among them the ghostly parade of the dead.