Jan 15, 2014

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

If I had to pick a least favorite Werner Herzog classic, it would most certainly be The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) aka Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle aka Every Man for Himself and God Against All, even if I still consider it an unrivaled masterpiece in its own right as a revolutionary and standout work of German New Cinema. Of course, next to my favorite Herzog flicks like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Stroszek (1977), Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), and Woyzeck (1979), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser just seems too tame and old hat. A work that won Herzog ‘The Special Jury’ Prize (aka ‘Silver Palm’) at the Cannes Film Festival, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser also has the distinction of being the first Herzog film to feature ‘outsider artist’ Bruno S. (real name Bruno Schleinstein), a mentally ill forklift operator and street musician who was born a bastard to an abusive prostitute (who beat him so badly at the age of 3 that he temporarily went deaf) and spent most of his childhood in mental institutions. Based on the eponymous real-life figure Kaspar Hauser—a feral teenager who randomly appeared on the streets of Nuremberg on 26 May 1828 who claimed to have been brought up in total isolation in a dark cell and who was mysteriously murdered on 17 December 1833 after being stabbed by an unidentified killer (though some speculate he did it to himself for attention)—The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is most interesting in its rather unconventional ‘realism’ due to its sometimes daunting depiction of a real-life feral man depicting a feral man (in fact, Herzog originally thought about titling the film The Story of Bruno Hauser). As can be assumed, Herzog caught a lot of flak from leftist do-gooder types for casting real-life wild man Bruno S. to play Hauser, not to mention the fact that the middle-aged (non)actor absurdly portrayed a 16-year-old (notably, when an interviewer asked Herzog about the age discrepancy, he replied: “But Bruno looks like a sixteen-year-old, Goddammit!”). Although there are countless books on the Hauser case, Herzog opted for doing little research, proudly stating in an interview with Paul Cronin: “The Kaspar Hauser archives are in Ansbach, the town where he was killed, but I never went there. There are about a thousand books and more than ten thousand articles and research papers that have been written about Kaspar, but I asked myself whether I really needed to get involved with such extraneous scholarship.” Indeed, like his subsequent feature Heart of Glass (1976) aka Herz aus Glas, Herzog attempted to find ‘ecstatic truths’ with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser; a work that creates its own post-WWII Teutonic (anti)Heimat mythos. A tragic depiction of a wild bastard boy who is unwittingly coerced into becoming a son of the Fatherland and forced into being integrated in German bourgeois society, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is an audaciously anarchistic avant-garde period piece that Herzog himself described as his own celluloid equivalent to Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Of course, more importantly, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is one of the few authentic films about a mensch who has been forced to live a life lower than that of a beast. 

 Feral man Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) lives in a dark dungeon cellar and for whatever reason unbeknownst to the world to this very day, his Master—a dubious fellow who sports a Svengali-like overcoat and top-hat and thus somewhat resembles Dr. Calgari—has decided to let him go free in Nuremberg. Before being introduced to sunlight and the world in general, Kaspar spent his imprisoned days playing with a toy horse and being spoon like a baby by his Master. Before letting him go, the Master teachers Kaspar how to walk and a couple phrases, but none of these things can prepare the wild man for the absurdity of civilization and its anti-organic idiosyncrasies. At first, Kaspar seems to learn best from child after entering Nuremberg and being introduced to its populous, but his journey will cause him to run into various curious characters, including prominent members of the aristocracy, church, and academia as they all seem him as an entertaining novelty. After it is decided that he must pay his own way as all men should, Kaspar becomes an exotic exhibit in an exceedingly eccentric freak show, which includes a midget named ‘The Little King’ (played by Helmut Döring, who starred in Even Dwarfs Started Small) and a catatonic blond boy named ‘Young Mozart’ (Andi Gottwald). Eventually, Kaspar is rescued by a kindly and highly patient fellow named Professor Daumer (Andi Gottwald), who tries his damnedest to make the feral man into a respectable member of bourgeois. Indeed, Kaspar goes from being a ‘noble savage’ to a novelty member of the nobility after a gay gaunt English aristocrat named Lord Stanhope (Michael Kroecher) temporarily adopts him, but the now-cultivated feral man ultimately feels like a perennial outsider and gets tired of being paraded around like a glorified sideshow freak. Eventually, Kaspar develops into a sort of ‘outsider Renaissance man’ and forms idiosyncratic theories on philosophy, metaphysics, and music, with the latter of which being his true great love. Of course, all good things must come to an end and after Kaspar is attacked and brutally beaten by the same mystery man that originally brought him to Nuremberg, his days seem to be numbered. And, indeed, the man comes back and fatally stabs Kaspar in the chesst, but not without leaving a note stating: “Hauser can tell you exactly what I look like and where I come from. To save him the trouble I’ll tell you myself where I come from and even what my name is. M.L.O.” In the end, Kaspar has splendid visions of nomadic Berbers in the Sahara Desert while lying on his death bed. After Kaspar dies, an autopsy is done that reveals that the strange feral man had deformities in both his liver and brain. 

 The preternaturally romantic antidote to senseless Hollywood sentimentalist schlock like Forrest Gump (1994) and Radio (2003), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser actually manages to bring true personality and individuality to a ‘mental invalid,’ demonstrating that such a freak can develop a unique Weltanschauung due to his singular perspective. Indeed, one of the most ‘humorous’ scenes of the film is when a professor played by kraut character actor Alfred Edel (Supermarkt, Hitler: A Film from Germany) asks Kaspar Hauser a philosophical question and the stoic feral man responds in a strangely sophisticated manner that is instantly rejected by the ‘properly educated’ prof as being not a conventional enough answer. Indeed, in many ways, the character of Kaspar Hauser seems like a stand-in for Herzog, as the director has always styled himself as a semi-civilized mountain man who for most of his career has rejected any sort of ‘proper’ and ‘formal’ brand of filmmaking, which is also quite clear in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, especially in his utilization of super-8 film stock footage shot by his brother Lucki Stipetic and experimental filmmaker Klaus Wyborny. As Thomas Elsaesser wrote in his comprehensive study New German Cinema: A History (1989): “The fact that the dream visions of the dying Kaspar Hauser are actually super-footage shot by Klaus Wyborny and commissioned by Herzog for his film can be seen as the acknowledgement of a debt, rather like that of Fassbinder to Schroeter. Had he not achieved international success with Aguirre, Herzog might well have concentrated his career more on making fantastic-surreal documentaries like Land of Silence and Darkness (Land des Schweigens und der Dunkelheit, 1971), or visionary films like Fata Morgana (1974), whose vicinity to the romantic traditions of the American avant-garde is more in evidence.” 

 As for the “Unknown Soldier of Cinema” (Herzog’s loving nickname name for Bruno S.), the money he earned from starring in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser enabled him to become economically independent and obtain an apartment (the very same apartment of his character in Stroszek), piano, and become a celebrity of sorts in Berlin. Ultimately, Bruno S. would only star in one more Herzog film, Stroszek (1977), which in my opinion is one of Herzog’s greatest and most important masterpieces. After his fame started to fade away, Bruno would go on to complain that “Everybody threw him away” and he took up painting and continued playing music, though he would star in a couple more films before he died of a condition relating to heart trouble on August 11, 2010. Shortly after Bruno S. died, Herzog paid him the greatest compliment a filmmaker could give to a (non)actor by commenting, “in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him.” Indeed, while I hate when people throw around word ‘humanity’, it is certainly undeniable that Bruno S. demonstrated a certain singular authenticity in his performances that not even the most talented of method actor could reproduce. While not my favorite Herzog film, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is an undeniable masterpiece that has no contemporaries. For German New Cinema fanatics and Teutophiles, the film is also notable for featuring cameos from German auteur filmmakers Herbert Achternbusch (The Last Hole, Heilt Hitler!) and Reinhard Hauff (Knife in the Head, Stammheim - Die Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe vor Gericht), as well as performances by Fassbinder superstar Brigitte Mira (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fox and His Friends) and krautrocker Florian Fricke of the avant-garde electronic project Popol Vuh.  Indeed, among other things, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is nothing less than a celluloid treasure trove of post-WWII cracked kraut kultur.

-Ty E

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