West Germany 1979, 81 mins
Director: Werner Herzog

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Consistent in nothing if not his eccentricity, Werner Herzog has only in his two most recent features (his eighth and ninth) bothered to do what most young filmmakers do in their first: to come to terms with the past, sort out where they stand in relation to other movies. Herzog has perhaps been assumed (not least by Herzog himself) to be such an original that he doesn’t need to be referred to any tradition. And it may be perverse proof of that to find both Nosferatu and Woyzeck awkwardly digesting their given material, and Herzog with more determination than conviction adapting himself to alien dramatic traditions (in what might be seen as an attempt, ironically, to find himself a specifically Germanic home). Whether or not, by switching to adaptations, Herzog has exhausted his ‘originality’ is another question, but it was probably only a matter of time before this dauntless conquistador should run out of new territories to explore, new landscapes in which to set man (the ridiculous) before nature (the sublime). Herzog, arguably, was already heading up a dead end with Stroszek, in which the child of nature suffers the familiar indignities of the road movie hero. The two new films have at least restored the cosmic level to his irony, which never bothered to suggest that such inspired fools as Aguirre, Woodcarver Steiner or Kaspar Hauser should be pitied for their social maladjustment.

That the old Herzog is alive and well might be assumed from the provisional way he has treated his pre-existing texts. It hardly seems relevant to consider whether the films are successful adaptations – the texts are simply man-made landscapes which Herzog rifles for his favourite man-made contradictions: between social roles and transcendental aspirations; between life’s ‘little’ deaths and a profounder death-wish that amounts to life everlasting; between prescribed circles and some limitless trajectory. Herzog’s implicit assertion here that he belongs to certain traditions (Murnau and expressionism; Büchner and the first tragedy of common man) might be construed as an attempt to run for cover-rather in the way his short film La Soufrière, having failed to show nature cataclysmically cancelling man, makes do with comments on the social disgrace of the people who live on the side of a volcano. But far from becoming ‘home’ to him, the texts seem to be locations as exotic as the Amazon jungle or the African desert, substitutes for a new physical direction; and if not entirely satisfactory as such, they do allow some room for manoeuvre.

One can assume that Herzog is respectful of Murnau because his Nosferatu literally duplicates so many images from the original. That he wants – or is able – to remake Murnau’s classic is doubtful, because his own identification with the extraordinary, the supernatural, keeps running counter to the story’s insistence on the tragedy of a being who can never die, therefore never love, never live in the present. What Herzog does is to make his own contrary film inside the original, elevating Jonathan Harker from functionary to dual protagonist, so that at the very moment Dracula is released from eternal life by lingering with Lucy beyond first cock-crow, Jonathan is released from the bourgeois present (the canals of Wismar, ever circling on themselves) to become the new emissary of the undead.

A less schizophrenic work, Woyzeck is in many ways a faithful adaptation of George Büchner’s strange fragmentary play, written shortly before his death in 1836 at the age of 23 and unperformed for nearly a century afterwards. Herzog has deleted and compressed some material but invented nothing, and one might assume that he found Büchner’s terse, gnomic dialogue, his non-linear construction and his yoking of a cosmic and a social sense of injustice adaptable enough to his own declamatory, disjunctive style. There is also a characteristic Herzog tension in Büchner: the contradiction between his ‘new’ naturalism (a proletarian hero, first driven crazy and then to murder by an unjust society) and his ‘new’ expressionism (the brief, elliptical scenes) that made the play unperformable for so long.

Herzog even draws imagery from Büchner that is strongly reminiscent of previous Herzog. The fair which the soldier Woyzeck (Klaus Kinski) attends with his common-law wife Marie (Eva Mattes) features a demonstration of the ‘human’ understanding of animals and the low evolutionary standing of some humans (i.e. soldiers) that recalls the exhibition of freaks in Kaspar Hauser. Büchner’s archetypes of the bourgeois order, the Doctor and the Captain, who prod experimentally at Woyzeck, and push him towards his final madness by teasing him about Marie’s infidelity with the Drum Major, are also dotty rationalists in the Herzog tradition. The stream beside which Woyzeck kills Marie, and in which he tries to wash away his sin, is conjured at the very beginning of the film as an idyllic setting for the placid, strangely toy-like garrison town (Herzog’s treatment of man and nature taking him by a more direct route than the conventions of expressionism back to Murnau). Woyzeck’s most severe limitation, in fact, might not be its given literary qualities but the extent to which it has allowed Herzog to remake something like Kaspar Hauser. Woyzeck is explained here even less than he is in the original: he is an obscurely obsessed mooncalf, tortured by cosmic visions as much as he is victimised by military discipline and the economic need that drives him to take part in the Doctor’s experiments. Büchner’s references to silence, darkness, blindness, and his apocalyptic biblical parables, are also typical of Herzog, but remain tensely contained in the text, unreleased in the imagery.

It is in this respect that one again finds Herzog slipping into two minds about his source. If he has changed little in Büchner, he has significantly reordered the opening scenes, so that one is forced to accept Woyzeck as a visionary, a man whose delirium is somehow more creditable than the functional buffoonery of those around him, before any psychological and/or social causes can be considered. Woyzeck’s first scene with the Captain, for instance, in which he carries out his duties as barber in such a fit of agitation that the officer begs him to slow down, is presented some time before – instead of immediately after – the scene in which he discovers the earrings which the Drum Major has given to Marie. His manic haste thus seems an inexplicable state of soul, or a reaction to the manifest absurdity of his life, rather than the shock of discovering himself a cuckold.

For all the jagged construction of his play, Büchner uses the character’s growing sense of betrayal as his prime motive for murder. Herzog leaves it unclear as to how much Woyzeck knows or guesses about the adultery, so that one is left again with a protagonist carried away by mystical forces, with a social context (as in La Soufrière) adduced as an afterthought. Mainly by casting Kinski as a fiercely frenetic Woyzeck – rather than the dolefully accusatory character one would expect if he had followed his original intention of using Bruno S. – Herzog avoids the indulgence of simply remaking Kaspar Hauser. He has, more successfully than in Nosferatu, accommodated his own personality to the original author; and if it is less than exploratory, the film works finally as a canny holding measure.
Richard Combs, Sight and Sound, Autumn 1979

Director: Werner Herzog
Production Companies: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen
Producer: Werner Herzog
Co-producer: Evzen Kolar
Production Manager: Walter Saxer
Czechoslovakia Production manager: Rudolf Wolf
Assistant Director: Mirko Tichacek
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Based on the Play by: Georg Büchner
Director of Photography: Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein
Lighting: Martin Gerbl
Camera Operator: Michael Gast
Editor: Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus
Art Director: Henning von Gierke
Costumes: Gisela Storch
Music: Fiedelquartett Telc, Antonio Vivaldi, Benedetto Marcello
Sound Recording: Harald Maury, Jean Fontaine
English Subtitles: John Gabriel

Klaus Kinski (Woyzeck)
Eva Mattes (Marie)
Wolfgang Reichmann (Captain)
Willy Semmelrogge (Doctor)
Josef Bierbichler (Drum Major)
Paul Burian (Andres)
Volker Prechtel (journeyman)
Dieter Augustin (market person)
Irm Hermann (Margret)
Wolfgang Bächler (Jew)
Rosy-Rosy Heinikel (Kathe)
Herbert Fux (Subaltern)
Thomas Mettke (innkeeper)
Maria Mettke (innkeeper’s wife)

West Germany 1979
81 mins

Signs of Life Lebenszeichen
Mon 1 Jan 12:30; Sat 13 Jan 15:00
Fata Morgana + The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner
Mon 1 Jan 18:00; Wed 17 Jan 20:30
Even Dwarfs Started Small
Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen
Tue 2 Jan 18:15; Mon 15 Jan 20:45
La Soufrière Warten auf eine Unausweichliche Katastrophe + Lessons of Darkness
Lektionen in Finsternis
Wed 3 Jan 18:20; Tue 16 Jan 20:40 (+ intro by writer Ian Haydn Smith)
Heart of Glass Herz aus Glas
Thu 4 Jan 18:30; Fri 19 Jan 20:40
Land of Silence and Darkness
Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit
Thu 4 Jan 20:50; Wed 10 Jan 20:45; Wed 17 Jan 18:15 (+ BSL intro by deaf filmmaker Sam Arnold)
Aguirre, Wrath of God Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes
Sat 6 Jan 15:15; Sun 14 Jan 11:40; Tue 23 Jan 18:30
My Best Fiend Mein liebster Feind – Klaus Kinski
Sat 6 Jan 17:45; Sat 13 Jan 21:00
Little Dieter Needs to Fly Flucht aus Laos
Sun 7 Jan 15:20; Thu 18 Jan 20:45
Sun 7 Jan 17:45; Sun 14 Jan 14:20; Thu 18 Jan 17:50
Mon 8 Jan 18:20; Sat 20 Jan 20:40
Werner Herzog’s Tales of Life and Death: An Illustrated Talk
Wed 10 Jan 18:30
Nosferatu the Vampyre
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht
Fri 12 Jan 18:10; Wed 24 Jan 20:50; Sat 27 Jan 15:00
Grizzly Man
Fri 12 Jan 20:45; Sun 14 Jan 18:15; Mon 29 Jan 18:15
Echoes from a Sombre Empire
Echos aus einem düsteren Reich
Sat 13 Jan 14:10; Tue 30 Jan 20:30
Sat 13 Jan 18:20; Sun 28 Jan 12:30
The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft
Fri 19 Jan 18:30; Wed 31 Jan 20:50
The White Diamond
Sun 21 Jan 18:20; Fri 26 Jan 18:30
Into the Abyss – A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life
Fri 26 Jan 20:45; Sun 28 Jan 15:10

Never miss an issue with Sight and Sound, the BFI’s internationally renowned film magazine. Subscribe from just £25*
*Price based on a 6-month print subscription (UK only). More info:

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at

Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email