Bleak but beautiful, “Woyzeck” is an involving, moving, intelligent transposition of the Georg Buechner play that should see plenty of fest and specialized tube play, with limited arthouse mileage also a possibility.
Pic is very different in look and feel from the best-known previous film version, Werner Herzog’s 1979 outing. Though sticking closely to the play’s text , action here is transferred from the original’s army base setting to a Hungarian railroad yard, where unshaven, sweat-stained lug Woyzeck (magnificently played by Lajos Kovacs) drags out an existence as a point man in a small sentry box, his dreary life regulated by train schedules and orders barked over a p.a. system by his disciplinarian boss (Aleksandr Porokhovchikov).
Woyzeck’s personal life is equally unsatisfactory. His beautiful young wife, Marie (Diana Vacaru), rejects his animal attempts at sex, preferring the embraces of a local policeman (Sandor Gaspar). Woyzeck’s only friends are the station doctor (Peter Haumann) and a young ragamuffin (Sandor Varga) who lives in the railroad sidings.
The incessant catalog of humiliations finally tips Woyzeck over the edge: He slits the throat of his boss during one of his regular shaving sessions and later knifes Marie in a deserted quarry.
Though the pic sounds unremittingly depressing, young Magyar helmer Janos Szasz, in only his second feature, turns the material into an intense, almost poetic chorale to the dispossessed underdog, with confident handling of his mixed-nationality cast and a true sense of knowing exactly where the pic is headed.
Precision lensing by Tibor Mathe, exploiting the rich blacks and graded grays of genuine b&w stock and processing, and atmospheric use of smoke effects in exteriors, is a major plus throughout. More involving on an emotional level are the rich performances and a music track of soothing extracts from Baroque composers Purcell and Pergolesi.
As the dumb, half-comprehending, bull-like Woyzeck, well-known Hungarian thesp Kovacs anchors the movie with a striking performance of suppressed power. Vacaru (voiced by Hungarian actress Eva Igo) is just right as the beautiful, dissatisfied Marie, and Porokhovchikov is commanding as Woyzeck’s arrogant boss.
Pic copped five awards at the 25th Hungarian Film Week in Budapest, including best actor (Kovacs), shared best director, cameraman and the foreign critics’ Gene Moskowitz Award, named after the late Variety scribe. Tech credits are all tops.