At one point in Herzog's brilliant "Stroszek," the mentally handicapped street musician Bruno (Bruno S.) and his physician are speaking. Bruno is in despair at the sordidness and violence of life. Taking him to one of the preemies in the hospital's neonatal ward, the physician holds out his two index fingers and the infant, scrawny, leathery, barely clinging to life, reaches up and grabs them so tightly that the doctor can lift him out of the cradle. There is, he tells Bruno, a remarkable reflex grip in humans. They hang on, no matter what.
The reflex grip seems to be one of the two themes running through this black comedy (is it really a comedy? I'm not sure; Herzog defies easy genre) about three of life's rejects: Eva the prostitute (Eva Mattes), the tiny ancient eccentric Mr. Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), and Bruno. Chased out of Berlin by thugs, they migrate to Wisconsin to begin a new life, only to discover that there are new and unfamiliar threats. In Berlin, Bruno tells Maria in one particularly engaging scene, the Nazis brutally broke bodies. Here, in the U.S., Americans politely break the spirit.
Still, the three characters' reflex grip tightens in rebellion against their fate. Eva runs away from the worsening situation; Mr. Scheitz turns bandito; and Bruno, refusing to capitulate, asserts his grip by killing himself (presumably; it's a bit ambiguous).
The justly famous final scene features an antic and rather creepy funhouse into which Bruno that has cages of trained animals. One of them is a dancing chicken, who does a slippery sort of mashed-potato dance to tinny, carnivalish music. The chicken is a metaphor for the film's other theme, which is in continuous tension with the first: the fact that fate, the system, the Man, call it what you will, plays the tune and the rest of us are chickens that dance. Without the first theme, the film's message would be pretty dismal. But even as dancing chickens, the grip reflex can help us preserve some degree of autonomy and dignity.
One of Herzog's very best, with an amateur cast, except for the incredible Eva Mattes, which is simply superb.