Woyzeck: Montreal Review

The moody modern interpretation puts viewers in the head of Buchner's tortured protagonist

Nuran David Calis offers a modern take on Georg Buchner's unfinished 19th-century play.

MONTREAL — In his liberal adaptation of the unfinished play cinephiles know via Werner Herzog's 1979 film, Nuran David Calis makes the troubled protagonist of Woyzeck not a soldier but a sanitation worker -- a worried, withering man who creeps down subway tracks at night, picking up refuse and killing rats. Other twists contribute to the picture of a man who, whether motivated by jealousy or madness, will in the end kill the mother of his infant child. Sure to be of interest to theater buffs, the film creates a mood so persuasively oppressive as to stand independently of its source material; though challenging, it could be successful in a limited arthouse run.

Tom Schilling plays Franz Woyzeck, who in his aboveground life toils in the kitchen of a cafe and sacrifices his health as a guinea pig in trials for a mysterious new drug. He needs the money if he's going to buy a house in the country for Marie (Nora von Waldstatten) and their child, but the process of earning it may lose him his girl: One side effect of the drug is impotence; another is a chronic insomnia that has further distanced Woyzeck from Marie's bed.

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That leaves Marie to be distracted by a Turkish pimp (Simon Kirsch), who gives her fancy earrings while trying to seduce her and thus fuels Woyzeck's jealousy. Not that any paranoia needs much encouragement in the man's mind: After eight days without sleep and a steady diet of verbal abuse at work, he's prone to hallucination. Increasingly as the film progresses, we're not sure how much of what we're seeing is actually happening.

The sordid colors of Bjorn Knechtel's photography and an ambient soundtrack of whispered voices set the stage for the character's breakdown, but Schilling needs little help: His hollow, haunted eyes speak loudly even when Woyzeck isn't ranting lines like "each person is an abyss; it makes one dizzy to look down." Calis finds ways for the character's two coworkers/neighbors to ground the tale in the present day -- their resentment of the pimp, for instance, manifests present-day xenophobia directed at immigrants in Western Europe -- but he isn't worried about being too concrete in his take on a story Georg Buchner never finished. This Woyzeck is more ambiguous and open-ended than most, giving the original text the feel of an ever-mutable myth.

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Production Company: Magic Flight Film GmbH

Cast: Tom Schilling, Nora von Waldstatten, Simon Kirsch, Julischka Eichel, Christoph Franken, Markus Tomcyzk

Director-Screenwriter: Nuran David Calis

Producers: Christian Rohde, Wolfgang Bergmann, Meike Klingenberg

Executive producer: Jule Broda

Director of photography: Bjorn Knechtel

Production designer: Eva-Maria Wendt

Music: Vivan Bhatti, Ketan Bhatti

Costume designer: Elisa Cappell

Editor: Simon Blasi

Sales: Beta Cinema

No rating, 89 minutes