Left unfinished at the time of his death in 1837 at the age of just 23, Georg Buchner’s proto-modernist play “Woyzeck” has been adapted myriad times in nearly every medium, notably into Allan Berg’s 1925 opera and Werner Herzog’s 1979 film. It gets an update in veteran theater director Nuran David Calis’ feature, which has been given the rather ponderous export title “The Tragedy of a Simple Man.” Transferring the original’s primarily military setting to a modern city slum during hard times, its hero juggling multiple jobs without making any headway, it’s an admirable if not completely successful attempt to fit this nihilistic parable into a modern context. Made for German TV, the film should continue to travel the fest circuit and score some specialty tube/disc sales.
Hapless Woyzeck, alternately pitiful and threatening in Tom Shilling’s nervous, flop-sweating performance, wants only to marry and provide a real home for girlfriend Maria (Nora von Waldenstatten) and their illegitimate newborn. He works to rid subway tunnels of trash and vermin with friends Andres (Christoph Franken) and Louis (Markus Tomczyk), occasionally alarming them with irrational flashes of temper; he’s also thinly tolerated as a dishwasher/waiter at a Middle Eastern restaurant. Making these tasks more uncomfortable is his decision to volunteer for a murky experiment in which a doctor (Gunnar Teuber) pushes him to the brink of mental and physical collapse, as regular mystery-substance injections induce insomnia and eventual hallucinations.
As his paranoia increases, Woyzeck suspects that nearly everyone is in cahoots against him — and indeed they seem to be, even the handsome Turkish pimp (Simon Kirsch) bent on seducing Maria into an easier life of easier morals. Finally our protagonist implodes, the experiment apparently complete in having destroyed his already desperate little world.
Considered shocking for many years for its ruthless if slightly fantastical portrait of the rich systematically exploiting the poor, “Woyzeck” retains an edge that anticipates existentialist thought even as the bluntness of its indictment feels a bit dated. Atmospheric, well shot and very well cast, Calis’ spin holds attention throughout despite a certain “Why bother?” air hanging over yet another take on this much-told tale. Tech/design contributions are solid.