Double Feature: Is “Napoleon Dynamite” a Second “Stroszek?”

If you’re a cult classic buff, or have even heard the term “cult classic” being bandied around, you’ve surely heard of Napoleon Dynamite, a film that managed to capture the apathy and social anxiety of an entire generation in 90 minutes of awkward shots and deadpan lines. Whether this approach worked is a matter of opinion. I thought the film had a certain charm to its naïveté and the continued insistence of its square-peg characters to fit into the round holes of the high-school in-crowd (not those round holes, mind you—get your minds out of the gutter), but many of my friends have said it’s stilted, its characters aren’t likeable, it’s paced like a snail overdosing on codeine, etc.

“My wildest dream is for them to just hurry up and have the election already.” –some guy I knew in high school

“My wildest dream is for them to just hurry up and have the election already.”
–Some guy I knew in high school

But it was definitely a novel approach to storytelling, wasn’t it? Nope. Not even close. In fact, there’s a film that hails from way back in the hoary mists of the German New Wave movement of the ‘70s that manages to out-Napoleon Napoleon in almost every way: Werner Herzog’s 1977 magnum opus, Stroszek. The film follows three outcasts on the fringes of Berlin society—a street musician, a quirky old man and a prostitute—as they move to Wisconsin and take straight jobs in hope of carving out their chunks of the American Dream. And while its structure—a series of brief vignettes that seem more aimed at running out the clock than at establishing any coherent plot—and its approach to Americana tread on much of the same ground as Napoleon, its earnestness and willingness to philosophize make its insights much more piercing and poignant than those of its 21st-century successor.

My favorite thing about Herzog’s approach to filmmaking is his exquisite casting, which some critics have referred to as “found-object casting.” His modus operandi didn’t involve A-list talent, but rather finding people outside of the industry, with no prior training whatsoever, and injecting them straight into folksy, homespun roles that most professional actors would be tempted to overthink or overplay. And so, unlike Napoleon Dynamite, Herzog’s jet-black loser comedy stars bona-fide losers: the title character, Bruno Stroszek, is played by an intellectually-stunted Berlin street performer credited only as Bruno S., and most of the characters introduced in the latter part of the film were hired on location in small towns in Wisconsin and North Carolina.

See the deer strapped to the back of that car? Just by being in this film, it’s ten times as pretentious as you’ll ever be.

See the deer strapped to the back of that car? Just by being in this film, it’s ten times as pretentious as you’ll ever be.

What makes Bruno S. and most of his cohorts stand out is how earnestly they play their parts; after all, all the actors in the film are essentially playing themselves. On my first pass through Napoleon Dynamite, my enjoyment of the film’s offbeat dialogues was hampered a bit by how stilted and crudely acted they seemed. It was almost a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” type of feeling, as if the actors knew what they were saying was patently moronic and wanted to make sure the audience knew they weren’t actually this inept in real life. You can’t see any of that in the performances of Bruno S., the elderly and eccentric Clemens Scheitz or any of the other lovable rubes in Stroszek (almost all of whose characters share their names), because there isn’t any there to begin with. What we’re seeing on screen is a decent approximation of how these people really behave, and that imbues the film with a refreshing honesty and realism.

And, even though the minds behind Napoleon Dynamite probably weren’t cribbing directly from Herzog (and, judging from Nacho Libre and the other less-than-subtle fare its directors followed it up with, may not have even heard of him), the average viewer could be excused for thinking differently, because many of the same gags are present in Stroszek, and are arguably done better (and more bizarrely) there. Show me Uncle Rico and Kip putting off the locals with their overblown attempts at hawking Tupperware and breast enlargement pills, and I’ll gladly show you the decrepit, borderline-senile Scheitz eagerly demonstrating his new method of detecting “animal magnetism” with a common voltmeter to two utterly confused hunters. Where Tina the llama frustrates her owners by refusing to eat dinner, Bruno’s pet myna bird, Beo, fixates on strange words and lets the name of another woman (perhaps one of Bruno’s ex-girlfriends?) slip out at precisely the wrong time. Even the embarrassing performance art of the “Happy Hands Club” that clearly establishes Napoleon as the loser of the century is paralleled nicely by Bruno’s god-awful performance on glockenspiel and accordion in an alley, where a captive audience watches in bafflement and the humiliation hangs in the air like a thick fog.

Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be buskers.

Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be buskers.

And, of course, there’s the biggest joke of all, the one about three misfits chasing an impossible dream. But in this one, while the setups may be similar, the punchlines branch in wildly different directions.

Although Napoleon Dynamite may be offbeat, it’s also almost always upbeat. By the end of the film, Pedro is president, Napoleon has somebody to play tetherball with and nobody (except the cocky, nostalgic Uncle Rico) is much worse for wear. If you were to read just the first and last sentences of the plot summary on Wikipedia, you’d believe it was just a normal high school movie of the kind that used to dominate the ‘80s. Its characters are odder and seem more like real people than the flat archetypes of The Breakfast Club, sure, but it’s just as idealized, lapsing into deus ex machina to deliver a feel-good ending against all realism and logic.

If you listen carefully during this part, you can hear a thousand gawky teenage boys sobbing into their pillows.

If you listen carefully during this part, you can hear a thousand gawky teenage boys sobbing
into their pillows.

The protagonists of Stroszek aren’t so lucky. I’m not going to spoil the ending—which is one of the most farcical, disturbing and memorable scenes in the history of cinema—but I will say that Herzog knows damn well that spontaneously moving to a foreign country when you can’t speak the language and can’t even hold down a steady job in your native land is a pretty awful idea.

Even so, I hesitate to say Stroszek is quite the pessimistic commentary on the American Dream that most professional critics make it out to be, as the title character retains a fierce optimism throughout his whole ordeal. In the penultimate scene, Bruno recites his laundry list of woes to a patron of a small-town sandwich shop who happens to speak some (horribly mangled) German. The friendly stranger assures him, “I wouldn’t worry about it,” and Bruno replies, “You said it. Absolutely.”

It’s hard not to admire a statement like that, just as it’s hard not to crack a smile as Napoleon plays that first real game of tetherball on the playground as the credits roll. And if I had to boil these weird, discordant movies down to their essence, that would probably be it—the feeling that it doesn’t matter how crazy, chaotic and incomprehensible the world may be, or how much we’re beaten up and pushed down as we try to claw our way to success. Somehow, something’s still alright, and everything’s going to work itself out.

Cheer up, Bruno. This article’s almost over.

Cheer up, Bruno. This article’s almost over.

“I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“You said it. Absolutely.”

Words to live by if I ever heard them.


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Author: Sylas May View all posts by
Junior at the University of Kansas, studying journalism and that awful German language. Some people fancy me an eccentric. I don't fancy myself anything, as I've been taught that it's rude to fancy yourself in public.

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