Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

The original German title of Werner Herzog's 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' is

which translates as 'Every Man for Himself and God Against All'. I prefer this original title. It's apposite for a study in social hypocrisy and exploitation, even if it does make the film a harder sell!

'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' is based on historical events. In 1828, a young man was found on the streets of Nuremberg carrying a letter addressed to the captain of the city's cavalry regiment. The letter, unsigned, stated that Kaspar had been instructed in reading and writing and wanted to join the cavalry. It transpired he could write nothing beyond his name and his vocabulary was limited. What little he could explain indicated he'd spent his life chained up in a cellar. The council initially housed him in a gate tower under the care of a jailer; later, he took up residence with schoolteacher Friedrich Daumer. Public interest in Kaspar turned him into a celebrity-cum-sideshow freak. A much-debated conspiracy theory had him as the hereditary prince of Baden, swapped at birth with a dying baby so the Countess von Hochberg could ensure her son Leopold's ascension to the throne. (Historians have deemed this nonsensical.) Rumours continued to fly when Kaspar was the victim of an apparent attack with a razor in 1829. He died of a stab wound in 1833. His epitaph fuelled the legend: "Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious."

Even the most cursory research on Kaspar Hauser (Wikipedia provides a good overview) reveals inconsistencies in his story of a lifetime's incarceration. Historical accounts show him as vain and quarrelsome. It has been suggested, plausibly, that the wounds he sustained from the "attacks" were self-inflicted. A film approaching the Kaspar Hauser story from the perspective that he was a fraud would be a fascinating project.

Herzog, however, considers the legend. And this makes 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' doubly fascinating. Herzog, certainly in his documentaries, pursues what he calls "ecstatic truth". Which is not the same as factual truth. Before this article gets bogged down in semantics, I'll let Herr Herzog himself explain:

"There is a much more profound level of truth than that of everyday reality, for example in the dreams that Kaspar talks of, and it is my job to seek them out ... I am interested in the verifiable historical facts up to a point. But I much prefer to evoke history through atmosphere and the attitude of the characters rather than through anecdotes that may or may not be based on historical fact." (Herzog on Herzog, p. 113). That would be a moral minefield for most directors; for Herzog it's a mission statement.

The most controversial aspect of "ecstatic truth" in 'The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser' is the casting of Bruno S. Kaspar was thought to have been born in 1812, making him 16 when he turned up in Nuremburg. Bruno S. was 42, a self-taught musician whom Herzog had seen in a documentary about street performers in Berlin. I'm not sure what the right word is to describe Bruno S. without sounding patronising. Beaten so severely as a child that he temporarily lost the ability speak, his formative years spent in care homes, institutions and prisons, there remained about him, however, a curious sense of child-like innocence. This single piece of casting is Herzog's masterstroke: Kaspar, if his story is taken at face value, was a boy who had no childhood. Herzog has him played by, essentially, a man-child.

Herzog approaches the material not as the enigma of the English title - no speculation is given to Kaspar's identity or that of his guardian (an eerily shadowy figure in the early scenes) - but as a study of how society behaves towards Kaspar. The authorities question him (his non-response to stimuli is tested by feigned sword parries and a candle flame). The church tries to convert him (when it's established that he has no concept of God, the curt response is "he'll just have to have faith"). Children treat him almost as a plaything, encouraging him to recite nursery rhymes. Labourers mock him, deriving much hilarity from his fear of a chicken. The town council, concerned at how much he's costing them, happily exploit him. A visiting nobleman considers "adopting" him.

Only Daumer and his wife seem interested in Kaspar as a person. And even Daumer's academicism leads to an unfortunate invitation: a professor is summoned to test Kaspar's intellect. This he does by posing a logic question: there are two villages, one whose inhabitants speak only the truth, while the other lot tell only lies; meeting a person at a crossroads between villages, what is the one question that can determine which village they're from? It is of course, "Would you answer no if I asked you if you came from the liars' village?" (The answer forces the liar into a double negative that betrays him.) Kaspar posits a different question: "Are you a tree-frog?" The simplicity is brilliant: the liar perforce has to say that he is, therefore proving himself a liar. The professor rubbishes Kaspar: "Your question describes, it doesn't deduce", adding - in what for me is the film's key line - "In logic and mathematics we do not understand things. We reason and deduce."

Herzog's Kasper Hauser is a metaphor for honest, unpretentious simplicity in a world defined by social strictures and scientific enquiry (the closing scenes have a group of surgeons remove and probe Kaspar's brain while a clerk chortles over the potential importance of his report on the autopsy). The Kaspar Hauser of Herzog's film may be the legend, but there's not a trace of hagiography or 19th century conspiracy theory in sight; instead, by eschewing mere facts, Herzog posits some probing questions about the human condition.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Excellent post Neil on one of Herzog's most important, if sometimes overlooked, films. I think the casting of Bruno really makes the film. It gives such a strange and poignant feel that I'm not sure would be there's a great performance in a really terrific film.

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks, Jeremy. 'Kaspar Hauser' is one of the more challenging films I've written about recently, but I enjoyed getting to grips with it. Herzog's visual style and attention to detail, particularly in the minutaie of Kaspar's incarceration and mysterious release at the beginning, definitely contribute to the off-kilter and haunting quality of the film ... but, as you say, it's the casting of Bruno S. that really brings out the poignancy.