Bruno S. 1932 – 2010
Werner Herzog found the mentally unstable Bruno Schleinstein, who was known briefly to the world as Bruno S., in a 1970 documentary called Bruno der Shwarze (Bruno the Black). At the time Bruno was a street musician, playing traditional ballads; he played piano, glockenspiel, accordion and hand bells. He spoke in declarative bursts of idiosyncratic phrasings, often referring to himself in the third person, a curious–or not so curious–affect considering the subject was often his history of suffering and despair at his state of estrangement from society. The authentic voice of the psychically wounded, which artists can only approximate, never become. Herzog cast him in two films, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser and Stroszek, where he played the lead characters in his own enigmatic persona, his level of awareness and engagement with the process never quite certain.
Born in 1932, Bruno may have been beaten partly deaf by his prostitute mother before being abandoned at a very young age. He ended up in an orphanage run by the Nazis, where mentally retarded children and other Reichsausschusskinder (literally “Reich Committee Children”–wards of the state) were subjected to medical experimentation. As an adult Bruno worked days as a forklift driver and nights he made music. His primary neurosis was paranoia.
Bruno’s difficulty hearing may have led to a mistaken diagnosis of retardation early on (fetal alcohol syndrome must be suspected here as well); he may have lost some mental faculties as a result of beatings either at the hands of his mother or the authorities; or he may have merely been damaged psychologically by the trauma of his early life, as Herzog believes.
His strange speech produced a spontaneous poetry of woe and anguish. He was paranoid and self-pitying–and for every good reason. He walked among us as a mangled specter from a barbarous yesterday, channeling the brutality of his history in through the sputtering device that was his damaged psyche. A living reproach from a past and a capacity for evil that are both too near.
Herzog wrote Stroszek specifically to place this strange character he’d found in a grim satire of nineteen-Seventies America. Herzog uses mostly non-professional actors throughout the film as the often grotesque characters Bruno-as-Stroszek encounters in Germany and America. He escapes a murderous pimp in Berlin to the indifference of a bleak plain in rural Wisconsin. The location and locals cast in Stroszek Herzog found while lurking about the hometown of Ed Gein (something about exhuming the grave of the killer’s mother). Herzog’s view of America is much like Bruno’s view of the world, morose and bemused, but compelling for its alien, distorted-lens focus and difficult to resist. A sort of retard strength.
Bruno believed he had been exploited and abandoned by Herzog, and many agree. There’s no doubt it was exploitation, but Bruno may have nonetheless benefited in the end from his fleeting celebrity. He resented Herzog for abandoning him along with the fair weather of celebrity he brought, but for Bruno happiness, as we understand it, was not a possibility.
It is fitting that Bruno should encompass also the shifty question of what constitutes exploitation. A reality television celebrity chooses to be exploited, often to extremes; society hasn’t yet an answer for these–people whose individual actions become our collective embarrassments. Bruno S. was an early “reality” figure who chose his exploitation with an awareness that may or may not be less than that shown by the average current type we’ve come to know. But unlike them he lost no dignity, neither his nor ours, in the process. His ability to master the world was limited, but his capacity to feel was keen; in this sense he is the opposite of the modern reality figure—who games the world, sometimes skillfully, in blithe and childlike emotional indifference.
Bruno lived on the same installment plan of contingency and compromise with an ultimately indifferent world, as we all do, but on far harsher terms. Maybe that’s what transfixed us, for a time; he was like us, visible and walking about, but farther down the abyss of human cruelty. Maybe that’s why he was so easily forgotten.
He unsettled and mesmerized us because what we saw, in his unguarded and expressive face, was human cruelty expressing itself as the suffering of the living host that bears it along, like a germ planted long ago and thriving still.
At some terrifying level, within us all, the suffering and cruelty are indistinguishable. How else to understand this human constant that is evil? It is in the nuances of personality that we see these awful things, make these unwanted realizations. Personality was invented in the movie theater, where the living visage, in its endless expressions, is the subject.
Bruno’s face was a hopeless plea, a perpetual surrender, and a haunting reproach. May he rest, at long last.