Minor spoilers for Minari (2020).
Much like the recent Oscar-nominee Minari (2020, dir. Lee Isaac Chung), Werner Herzog’s 1977 film Stroszek is about immigrating to the rural United States in promise of attaining the American dream. Both films share similar premises — people emigrating from their home countries during the late 70s/early 80s — feature similar living conditions for their characters — mobile homes in rural North America — and even trace some of the same challenges around language and translation, home security, and unfulfilled promises. Yet, their conclusions couldn’t be more opposed. Whereas Minari is a film about family and perseverance, Stroszek is ultimately a film about isolation and defeat. Much of this divergence may be attributed to the vast differences in experience between a Korean family and a German street performer, his neighbor, and a sex worker from Berlin. However, there might also be something to be said about how the concept of the American Dream has shifted within cultural and cinematic narratives in the past thirty-three years.
In Stroszek, we see the titular character as he is released from prison and subsequently finds himself lost, and drunk, in bars and on street corners of Berlin tragically playing the accordion. Eventually teaming up with Eva, a sex worker equally dissatisfied with her dreary life, and Scheitz, his friendly yet whacky neighbor, they collectively decide to leave their desolate surroundings, start over, and chase the American dream. Contrarily, in Minari, we get no such backstory. The very first scene of Chung’s film portrays the Yi family as they arrive at their mobile home in Arkansas. However, the initial reaction Monica Yi has to their new mobile home — she is appalled — hints at the living conditions she and her family might have been used to before moving to the states. The characters of Stroszek are comparably overjoyed at the sight of their mobile home. Again, these experiences are difficult to compare due to the intersectional differences of each group’s experience — a significant being the Yi family’s race. However, both films have clearly opposed theses on the attainability of the American dream for those emigrating from elsewhere. This bifurcation is evidenced in the characters’ response to their mobile homes as well as each film’s conclusion. Whereas Minari starts low and ends high, Stroszek — once within the U.S. — starts high and ends low. Of course, both with many road bumps.
Although ostensibly portraying a similar time in history, the aesthetic differences in the films are both reflections of the respective directors’ perspectives as well as the evolution of cinematographic technology. Having to shoot Stroszek on film with a small budget, Herzog was within his wheelhouse of run-and-gun, rough-hewn image capture that lends his film a granular and unaestheticised quality. Keeping with his theme of disillusionment of the American dream, Stroszek is a bleak film visually and thematically, but not without its share of pearls in the rough. The humor and passion amongst Herzog’s characters comes across believably as most of the film’s dialogue and situational humor was improvised and involved many non-professional actors who were casually asked to star in the film. The lightness that these techniques imbue on the film is a necessary contrast to its tragically ambiguous ending. We see the titular character, Bruno Stroszek, desperately seeking the better life he was promised and plainly voice his disappointment when he doesn’t find it: “We’re now in America and I believed that everything would get better, that we would finally reach our goal. But no.” Herzog remains unsentimental in his style and conclusion which implies that Bruno commits suicide upon recognizing the American Dream as lie.
In extreme contradistinction, Minari is overtly warm and “tender,” as many critics have called it. A gentle score accompanies the film’s patient images and editing. Utilizing mostly natural or soft lighting and expensive digital cameras, Minari’s images are smooth, bright, and overcome by a sense of optimism. Even in its darkest moments, Minari remains sentimental. Within the first few minutes of the film, we can quickly gather Chung’s views on the American Dream. His film showcases the importance of reliance on family as well as the rewards of dedication to hard work. Although Jacob, the father of the film’s very young protagonist, David, faces consistent setbacks in his efforts to grow and sell produce, his perseverance and resourcefulness is at the core of his character – eventually leading him to success. The film ultimately celebrates the vitality of the American Dream and pays tribute to many Asian-Americans who had to endure similar trials and tribulations in order to create opportunities for themselves and their children.
Seeing Minari side-by-side with Stroszek, there is clearly a disparity in consensus. It raises the question of whether success or failure in achieving the American Dream is simply on a case-by-case basis, or whether there is truly a “right way” to approach it. That both are scripted or semi-scripted fiction films doesn’t help their case in regards to authenticity. But as previously mentioned, both Minari and Stroszek are reflecting on the state of the American Dream from forty years ago. Amidst increased border control, the horrors of ICE, and targeted hate crimes towards Asians, what is the state of and narrative around the American Dream today?