As I noted in the trailer write up for his upcoming film My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done? (2010), Werner Herzog is a director who is able to balance reoccurring themes with an eclectic diversity in material. For instance, the Herzogian tropes of madness and (sometimes or) the brutality of nature appear in both his classic drama about Spanish conquistadores in search of El Dorado, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, 1972), and his recent documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World (2007). The film up for review today, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (also known as Every Man for Himself and God Against Them All after its original German title Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, 1974), lacks a significant discussion about the natural world, but it is a film inherently about madness. Yet, the irony of the film is that the main character, Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S.), is actually not insane. Drawing off of this insight, Herzog crafts a film about a society’s attempt to treat and assimilate a person labeled as being insane.
Based on the true story, the film focuses on Hauser, who has been chained in a dark cellar since birth and raised in complete isolation by a stranger (Hans Musäus). One day in the early 1800s, Hauser is released by the stranger and subsequently abandoned in the town of Nuremberg. Having a very limited education during his imprisonment, Hauser is unable speak or write comprehensibly. The citizens of Nuremberg, unsure of what to do with the man-child, lock him up in prison until he can be medically evaluated. As time goes on, the townspeople attempt to teach Hauser German and care for him. Public interest is sparked when his story spreads throughout the region. Hauser becomes an exhibition in a circus where he captures the attention of Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast), who swiftly adopts him. After two years, Hauser learns to read and write, exhibits a unique knowledge of religion and logic, and becomes a competent musician. Having become popular in social circles and having gained the ability to express himself, Kaspar attracts the attention of the stranger who abandoned him. Fearing that Hauser will be able to identify him, the stranger begins plotting his murder.
As I noted above, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a film about society’s perception of unordinary as being insane. Kaspar Hauser is not mentally ill; he has simply been robbed of any education what so ever. As the film progresses, the viewer becomes aware that Hauser’s mind and body are able to function just like any other person’s. Yet, because his un-traditional life experiences have led him to unorthodox views of religion and logic, Hauser makes members of German society uncomfortable. For instance, a philosopher discredits Hauser’s correct answer to a logic problem simply because it is not the traditional answer. These types of encounters occur throughout the film and, as the film’s final scene so perfectly exemplifies, the citizens of Nuremberg want to use madness as a justification for Kaspar’s eccentric qualities. Thus, in Herzog’s critique, insanity is not a medical description but an adjective used in the service of supporting a society’s dominant ideology. As Herzog notes in his description of the film, “Kaspar’s story is about what civilization does to us all, how it deforms and destroys us by bringing us into societal line.”
This critique is completely dependent on the performance of Bruno S. If Bruno had failed to solicit our complete empathy due to the gulf of difference that stands between our lives and the life of Hauser, this film would be a failure. Yet, Bruno’s performance is perfect, undoubtedly drawn from the tragedies the actor had to endure in real life. Bruno, an unknown at the time (Herzog cast the actor upon seeing him in a documentary about street musicians), is the illegitimate son of a prostitute. His mother, hoping to place young Bruno in custody of the state, beat him to the point where he temporarily lost his ability to speak, leaving him to be diagnosed as being mentally retarded. Having spent nearly a quarter of a century imprisoned due to a misdiagnosis, Herzog rightfully felt Bruno was right for the part of Hauser as Bruno’s discomfort as a non-professional actor is perfectly translated into Hauser’s confusion.
Moreover, the actor’s slightly apish facial features (risen cheek bones and nose, small brown eyes) are capable of registering such fear and sadness that I often found myself feeling as if I were watching a performance on par with Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece of silent cinema The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928). Herzog further amplifies Bruno’s performance through his script. Take, for instance, this exchange that augments Bruno’s performance with heart-wrenching dialogue:
PROFESSOR DAUMER: Kaspar, what’s wrong? Are you feeling unwell?
KASPAR HAUSER: It feels strong in my heart… The music feels strong in my heart… I feel so unexpectedly old.
PROFESSOR DAUMER: You’re been such a short time in the world, Kaspar.
KASPAR HAUSER: Why is everything so hard for me? Why can’t I play the piano like I can breathe?
PROFESSOR DAUMER: In the two short years you have been here with me, you have learned so much! The people here want to help you make up for lost time.
KASPAR HAUSER: The people are like wolves to me.
Bruno delivers his dialogue stiffly, as if he is still unsure of his vocabulary and diction. This pronunciation, of course, is exactly how we would expect Hauser to speak. Bruno’s performance is truly amazing and I cannot praise it enough, particularly given that it was his first role.
Yet, despite Bruno’s performance and Herzog’s thoughtful interrogation of madness, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser does not feel as substantial as Aguirre or, his other feature with Bruno S., Stroszek (1977, reviewed at Pajiba here). Specifically, I think the pacing of the film is slightly bit off, as it takes nearly half the film for Kaspar to become the student of Daumer. This, in turn, provides little cinematic canvas for the attempts made on Hauser’s life. Secondly, there are several shots and sequences that are a bit rough around the edges. For instance, the framing in quite a few shots seems slightly off, less precise than usual. More significantly, I felt that the film’s introductory sequence stood out like a sore thumb in retrospect. Herzog’s aesthetic choice makes it appear like Hauser’s dream sequences, yet we haven’t been introduced to the character yet, so we have no clue what role these images play in the film until later. Why not begin the film, like Hauser, in the isolation of the cellar? That’s what the first post-credits sequence establishes; why not start with there? While this may come across as critical nitpicking, Herzog is an extremely thoughtful director and these odd choices feel uncharacteristically handled. In the end, I wouldn’t write The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser off as a minor work in Herzog’s oeuvre. The positives greatly outweigh the negatives. Yet, unlike Aguirre or Stroszek, which are unquestionable masterpieces, Kaspar Hauser is memorable and enlightening but not transcendent.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.