I had forgotten that this particular Herzog film starred Klaus Kinski, even though I now remember scenes from it that were on the documentary, My Best Fiend, which is about the tumultuous relationship between Herzog and Kinski.
Actually, watching My Best Fiend really helps one to appreciate the evil genius of Kinski’s acting. As Woyzeck is drawing to a close, and Woyzeck is wielding the knife on his wife, Marie, as the viewer I know that although he is not stabbing her with the knife (there is some BRILLIANT camera work and acting going on because you can see him come down with the blade and at the last second turn his hand so as to not really stab!), he is still literally going through the motions with the same intensity as if he were really doing it. The shots are slowed, the grimace is on his face for an extended period of time, and Marie is hanging limply in his arms, her hair in one of his hands, the knife in the other stabbing down. Eva Mattes (Marie) must have had nerves of steel to trust Kinski that much. Really!
For me, this is one of the best aspects of Herzog’s filmmaking: capturing the focused intensity of the shot, whether it be waiting uncomfortably on someone’s face while they squirm because they think he’s going to turn it off but he’s really waiting to watch the subject squirm; or capturing Kinski-as-Woyzeck in the midst of murderous emotional release, slow and deliberate, watching the pain play out on Kinski’s animated face.
I do wonder sometimes what makes Herzog choose a particular story to tell. And aside from the infidelity-murder plotline (not being of the most critical importance overall), I feel the more critical aspects of this film are clearly centered around Woyzeck’s relationship with the Doctor and the Captain. Both are using him, manipulating him. And eventually they manipulate him together (in a God-Satan-Job sort of way), ultimately setting into motion the death of Marie.
In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog is critiquing the educated, or the systems of education and medicine, because of how Kaspar was “studied” and flaunted for everyone’s amusement and personal gain in the film.
In Woyzeck, Herzog seems to be showing the viewer a perverted system of science, where a selfish doctor is willing to deprive a man for months for his own scientific gain: he makes him eat only peas for 6 months so he can test certain things, like urine levels. And the Doctor constantly references his “theories” and he has a huge closet full of papers; presumably papers he’s written or read; presumably referencing the papers he plans to write using Woyzeck as his test subject.
I think Herzog is telling the viewer that people should not be scientific or social experiments. He told us this in Kaspar Hauser. Because when that happens, things go terribly wrong.
You can’t force a man to eat only peas for six months and expect him to remain sane!