DVD Review Of The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/7/07


  Werner Herzog is a nonpareil filmmaker. Yes, one might argue that a Stanley Kubrick or an Ingmar Bergman, a Federico Fellini or an Akira Kurosawa, were greater directors of films, but all of them have a more fundamental connection to the central- if not conventional, core of the art of filmmaking. Herzog is farther off into his own cinematic dimension than any other director. If there can be such a thing as instinct into so rigorous an art as filmmaking, then Herzog is as close to a pure beast in that art as one can get.

  His hour and fifty minute long 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder Für Sich Und Gott Gegen Alle- literally Every Man For Himself And God Against All; a much more apt and poetic title than the English language version), which he wrote, produced, and directed, and which won that year’s Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, about the infamous case of a wild child who strode into Nuremburg in 1828, with a note proclaiming his name, and a bizarre tale of being raised in a dark cell for perhaps a decade and a half, which led to decades of articles, books, and a place in Fortean lore, is one of those films that no other filmmaker could make. Yes, there have been other films that have touched upon the case, but none so viscerally, and of all the post-Nazi German filmmakers, often called the New German Cinema, as opposed to France’s New Wave, Herzog is the most, for lack of a better term, feral; thus the perfect man to bring Hauser’s tale to the screen.

  The film is not so much a linear screenplay as a string of moments and images (one great moment concentrates on a stork eating a helpless frog; yet it’s a beautiful death, while a dream sequence shows pilgrims climbing a mountain in Ireland during a fog, as Pachelbel’s Canon plays onscreen) which act as a bildungsroman not only for the lead character of Hauser, played by the mentally deranged Bruno S., but for the characters that inhabit Nuremburg, and have to learn to be more accepting of someone whose origin, life, and entry into their world is as close as one could get to an extraterrestrial being without being one. Hauser is not only outside of their experience, but also outside their very realm and conception of difference, and as he learns the 19th Century Germany’s customs and manners he sees how stilted and absurd many of them are, and so does the audience, via Herzog’s ecstatic art beyond analysis.

  A number off scenes brilliantly illustrate this, such as when Hauser runs out of a church and describes the congregational singing as ‘howling’, which only ends when the preacher takes to howling. He also questions the absurdity of some clergymen’s claims about God creating the universe from nothingness, as well as exposing the sexism of the era when he asks a female domestic in the home he’s living in what purpose women serve. He sees them only doing household chores and not truly living. But, instead of having the woman uncharacteristically give an answer, she tells him to ask her male employer, a brilliant distillation of that era’s hypocrisy. There is also a scene where that employer, his caretaker Herr Daumer (Walter Ladengast), tries to explain to Hauser that apples are not thinking creatures, then rolls one down a path. The apple rolls off into the high grass and Hauser declares it did not stop where Daumer wished, as promised, but merely went to hide in the grasses. Daumer then rolls the apple back down the path, toward a parson’s foot, who wants to stop it, but the apple hits a bump, and rolls over the foot and away. Hauser declares the apple is indeed smart, for it knew to jump over the extended foot which sought to stop it, and make its escape. In other scenes, Hauser learns that a flame can cause pain, yet the tears that roll down his cheek are from eyes still blank of expression. His reaction is autonomic not emotional, and even his worldview, such as it is, has its own internal parameters, such as when he argues with Daumer that the room in the jail tower he was first put in has to be larger than the tower for he could see the room all about him, but the tower disappears from view when he turns around.

  But, the most apt scene is one where a teacher tries to play a game of logic with Hauser, by having him imagine two towns; one filled with constant liars and one filled with total truth tellers. He asks Hauser what is the one question that will tell him what town a traveler is from, since both men, if asked which town they are from, will respond that they are not from the town of liars. The would be logician declares there is only one question that, via deduction, will work, and that is to ask the travelers the question in a double negative form, which will trip up the liar. However, Hauser has a more primitive logic. He declares there is another query that would reveal the liar and truth teller, thus evincing their hometown as well. He says he would ask both men if they are a tree frog, therefore the liar would claim he is, the truth teller would deny it, and Hauser would have his answer. It is every bit as logical as the logician’s, and even more direct, if something out of a Samuel Beckett play. Yet, the teacher rejects it as being outside logical conventions. I recall, years ago, taking an IQ test at the behest of a cousin, and being confronted with similarly culturally blindered queries. I was asked which of four things went with a cup- a saucer, a chair, a napkin, or a table. Intellectually and culturally, I knew the answer wanted was a saucer, but I also new, from experience, that a table was also correct, because children from poorer families only bought and used cups, and were not as acquainted with saucers as middle and upper classes were. So, like Hauser, I went with an answer I knew would be marked wrong, but was every bit as defensible. In the film, when Hauser’s query is rejected by the teacher, the look on Bruno S.’s face, and his disgust over the stupidity of the teacher is palpable. It’s a brilliant moment, for there are many different ways human beings learn, and a to b to c rote education is a waste to creative people such as a Herzog or myself, or to people like Hauser or Bruno S., at the other extreme.

  Yet, its import goes beyond the scene or the film, for it’s not an episode from the real Hauser’s life, as was the scene of him running out of the church, or questioning theology, but one from Herzog’s own mind, which demonstrates his unique ability to craft scenes that are based upon a character’s persona yet which are wholly in touch with the greater ‘truth’, if you will, of the character. This is what Herzog calls an ‘ecstatic truth,’ and is something he does better than any other artist in film. His visuals only underscore this ‘logic beyond logic,’ from the gauzey opening shots of a boat on a river- which seem like colorized fragments from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, to Kaspar’s abandonment by his captor (Hans Musaus), to the jarring dream images Kaspar has, filmed in a different style- almost like home movies made with an old 8mm camera (which Herzog confirms in the DVD film commentary by stating they were taken by his brother years earlier, on a worldwide trip, and saved from the garbage by Herzog; although, given Herzog’s penchant for lying, this may be bogus, as well), of an imaginary Caucusus mountains to that of a caravan led by a blind man in the Sahara Desert, where he dreams a tale with no end. Few filmmakers have ever truly followed the real dream logic of real dreams as well as Herzog. Also, Herzog is true to the human spirit, for, although the film is ostensibly a costume period piece, it never has that Merchant-Ivory phoniness to it. The characters’ clothes are not all perfectly tailored, and the people act as unenlightened and ugly as they are today, with some of the townsfolk resenting Hauser, others teasing and mocking him, and others constantly gossiping about him. And, as usual, Herzog uses music in film better than anyone, even if his usual musical scorer, Florian Fricke from the band Popol Vuh, does not do the score (although he makes a cameo appearance as a blind pianist), in favor of classical music from The Magic Flute, and Pachelbel’s Canon.

  The DVD is part of Anchor Bay’s Werner Herzog DVD box set and is in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio. There is a film trailer, a Herzog bio, and the commentary track by Herzog with Anchor Bay’s Norman Hill serving as prod. His comments are brief and innocuous, for Herzog needs no co-commenter, for he is simply one of the best raconteurs around, and his commentaries among the best one can get. Particularly informative is when Herzog delves into the life history of the film’s lead, Bruno S.- who was forty-one and playing a teenager when the film was made. The real Hauser was believed to be no older than sixteen or seventeen when found. Yet, Bruno S. gives one of those performances that some people seem only they were born to play. His vapidity, and blankness are not really an act, for he was a mentally ill, vagabond street musician and part-time forklift driver that Herzog spotted in a documentary film. His paranoia was so deep that, even during filming, he felt Herzog and his crew would steal money from him. Herzog claims he was the bastard child of a prostitute, and suffered many abuses on the street and by the state, and goes by the name Bruno S. because he wanted his real name protected. Yet, despite the age difference and many other factors, Bruno S. is Kaspar Hauser, and it is no act, for their lives were quite similar in trajectory, save that Bruno S. was not murdered, like the real Hauser, five years after his emergence. The proof of Bruno S.’s non-acting is evident when compared with some of the mawkish and condescending performances of the mentally ill that Hollywood indulges in- think Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

  Of course, given Herzog’s past, the whole Bruno S. legend could be just that, for the man did appear in Herzog’s later Stroszek, and other films- hardly the thing someone who did not seek the limelight would do. Regardless, the performance in this film that Bruno S. gives is superb. But, a phony past for the lead actor would be in keeping with both the film’s fictive Hauser and the fact that the real Hauser tale has, by most modern experts, been deemed a fraud for the real boy too easily learnt human language and other skills whereas other ‘feral children’, who truly were never exposed to language, were incapable of learning it, and most modern studies have shown that human beings deprived of language till the age of six or seven simply cannot learn complex language- the window of opportunity for the malleable brain to pick up the abstractions behind language’s symbology disappears. Plus, Hauser’s murder (or likely real life suicide, a point not taken up by Herzog)- in too vivid a red colored fake blood, seems to point to the fact that there was also a political conspiracy involved, despite Herzog’s claims to the contrary.

  The film, however, ends with a great scene, and one which touches upon some of the science behind feral children and language development, or rather spoofs it, and it is based upon the real life autopsy of Hauser. Coroners dissected his brain and found many abnormalities- as well in his liver. One odd man, who was recording the case of Hauser for the town’s records, leaves the autopsy elated with the knowledge of Hauser’s brain’s oddities, and feels this is finally an explanation for Hauser’s enigma, as he walks down a long street. Of course, it is not a real explanation for anything, and says far more of the man and the society which produced him than it does of Hauser, but it’s a great way to end the film, for the only character that seemed to truly understand Hauser was the jailer’s young son, who first taught him words.

  Thus, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser is not a typical ‘outsider tale’, but a film that critiques the inside society that surrounds outsiders, and with its ellipses in time and narrative, one sees how that critique grows steadily harsher and dimmer the more Hauser grows within. He goes from oddity to sideshow freak (where two iconic images from Herzog’s earlier Even Dwarfs Started Small reappear) to ward of the rich to mystery in death. Yet, as Herzog comments, no person is really a mystery, for we are all here due to fornication. It’s merely another of the many brilliant and sardonic comments Herzog makes about this small but great film of his. Thus, as a purveyor of greatness, he earns the right to crow, when he states, ‘I have never made a mistake in music.’ And, having watched many of his films, I can add that he’s made very few mistakes in any other aspects of filmmaking. Perhaps that’s because, if as he claims, Herzog does not dream at night. Thus, his films are his waking dreams, and, if a man cannot or will not make the most of his dreams, then what are any images for?

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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