The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle)
Germany (1974) Dir. Werner Herzog
For my second induction into the works of German auteur Werner Herzog, we take another trip into the past where he explores a peculiar true-life story from 1828 of a sixteen year-old boy dumped in the middle of small village in Nuremberg, with just a letter and the ability to speak one sentence. As ever it is handled with Herzog’s personal, rather esoteric style, occasionally feeling like a Spike Milligan lampoon, but it is based on fact.
We meet the eponymous Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) chained to the floor of a dirty dungeon with just a toy horse for company and some bread for food. An unnamed man dressed in a black cloak (Hans Musäus), who we assume to be his captor, treats Kaspar roughly but one day teaches him to write his name then takes him outside and shows him how to walk. They arrive in Nuremberg where Kaspar is then left along in a village square clutching a letter.
Kaspar is taken by a kindly local man to the cavalry captain mentioned in the letter (Henry van Lyck) who wants nothing to do with this unkempt mute stranger. After a short spell with a farmer’s family, who teach him basic words and social skills, Kaspar is rescued from a travelling freak show by Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast), who takes it upon himself to educate and civilise Kaspar.
I don’t know if the attraction of such curious stories tells us anything about Werner Herzog, but from what I’ve seen of his work thus far, this bemusing tale does seem tailor made for Herzog’s abstract approach. While a dramatisation, the story is based on fact, from original letters found on the real Kaspar Hauser, along with other evidence from the period.
The only real change is that actor Bruno Schleinstein was 41 at the time of filming so making his character seventeen is a stretch even Herzog can’t pull off (though Spike Milligan probably could!).
One could argue that Kaspar Hauser is a forerunner of Forrest Gump or other idiot savants in fiction, while his education and civilising shares fleeting but explainable similarities with Tarzan and Pygmalion.
It is important to note that despite a brutal and unexplained incarcerated upbringing, Kaspar was never violent – savage in lack of social grace and communication only. His vicious captor didn’t seem to damage Kaspar’s trust in his fellow humans, it is their fear of his slow comprehension and responses which upset them.
From learning humble parrot like words and phrases from the farmer’s kids to a more intensive education, Kaspar proves that there is a fully functional brain behind the slow-witted facade, able to play the piano, dream up fantastic stories and think outside the parameters of “normal” logic, much to the chagrin of a pompous psychiatrist.
Today we might label Kaspar as autistic but in 1828 no such thing existed, but despite his progress, Kaspar was still sadly seen as an amusing “freak show” attraction, on a par with Joseph Merrick aka The Elephant Man.
In a scene which we could view as a comedic homage to James Whale’s classic telling of Frankenstein, Kaspar is teased by some idiot farmhands with a chicken, causing him to back away in terror, as Karloff’s monster did when confronted with fire. This is amusing because earlier Kaspar was shown a flame which he touched without any fear – although he did cry when he realised he had burnt his fingers.
Aside from touches like this, Herzog directs the film with a sense of compassion and sympathy for Kaspar, and if humour is injected it is at the expense of the ignorant people surrounding Kaspar and not the man himself. One can almost feel a proxy satisfaction when Kaspar deflates the psychiatrist in his logic test or questions the beliefs of the priests who insist his faith be a priority to his education, since his logic is just as valid as their indoctrinated conventions.
Herzog is an experimental filmmaker at heart and he gets to demonstrate this with the dream sequences used to illustrate Kaspar’s fictional stories. Apparently some old desert footage Herzog had which was going to be disposed of was resurrected and used in its untouched, scratched and grainy form to represent the fantasy world Kaspar had imagined, creating a truly dreamlike experience. Witness also the viciousness of the tall reed of grass in a field swaying under the pressure of a demanding wind; another arresting and powerful shot.
Whether it was serendipity or not, the casting of Kaspar couldn’t have been any more fortuitous as Bruno Schleinstein actually had so much in common with his character. Bruno S (as he was also known) was a street musician who had a troubled childhood, being beaten and spending time in mental facilities.
Herzog saw him in a music documentary and offered him the role of Kaspar, despite Bruno having no acting history. Even if he didn’t, in this film Bruno WAS Kaspar and if he was playing himself (for wanting a better term) he again deserves our utmost respect and kudos for baring his soul for all to see.
One scene in particular stands out for me, in which a soldier is thrusting his sword at Kaspar who doesn’t move and inch – not his eyes, his head, no flinching, nothing – as the blade dances perilously close about his face. The discipline required to keep so still would be incredible enough for any actor, let alone one with no training at all. I don’t know if this was Herzog taking advantage of Bruno’s past issues or exploiting them in a positive way to enhance the credibility of the role, but it is a tense moment to endure.
Perhaps too dour and arthouse for mainstream audiences, I found The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser to be an oddly enriching telling of this unusual story, but it may take a while until I am able to fully get on Herzog’s wavelength.