The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira
I first encountered this strange film during my sophomore year of college when I was taking a class on New German Cinema. This was an important course in my development as it was my first introduction to the films of Werner Herzog, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbender and Wim Wenders, plus many other great German directors of the late 20th century. It opened my eyes to so many great films: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The American Friend, The Tin Drum, and The Marriage of Maria Braun, classics all of them, but the film that most intrigued me was Herzog’s Stroszek. I was fascinated by the strange mannerisms of Bruno S., and ended up seeking out his and Herzog’s first collaboration, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser on my own. Though Stroszek was a truly strange and beautiful film, it didn’t prepare me for the baroque fairy tale that is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and to be honest, I didn’t really like the latter film at the time. It ended up in my collection because I purchased a cheap box set of early Herzog films a few years back in order to rewatch Stroszek, although I hadn’t gotten around to checking out this film again until watching it for this project. It was as deeply strange an experience as it was when I first watched the film at 20, but I think I may have found somewhat more of an appreciation for it.
The film is based on the true story of Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S), a foundling child who arrived in Nuremburg in 1828 possessing very few verbal skills and no societal upbringing whatsoever. In the film, we see the early portion of Hauser’s life in which he lived chained to the floor of a basement, with only a toy horse for amusement, and an anonymous caretaker who feeds him only bread and water. One day, this man takes Hauser from his cell, teaches him to walk and a few phrases of speech, and then leaves him in Nuremburg at the break of dawn, with only a letter in his hand explaining his appearance and requesting an audience with a military officer in the town. The townsfolk attempt to socialize Hauser, teaching him some words and some basic manners, but ultimately decide that it would be best to profit off of his curious nature by putting him in a circus show. Hauser is rescued from the circus by Professor Daumer (Ladengast) who invites him to live in his home, and who, along with his maid Kathy (Mira), shows Hauser kindness and furthers his socialization. Far from being an idiot, Hauser shows a great capacity for understanding and learning, although he takes circuitous approaches towards the knowledge that is presented to him. Hauser seems to progress in his pursuit of knowledge, but the traumas of his upbringing are always present, and though he makes great strides towards normalcy, his mimicry of societal manners is always somewhat off. One day, Hauser is brutally attacked at random, and while on his deathbed he tells a strange tale of having visions of nomads travelling across the desert.
It’s impossible to imagine this film without its peculiar lead, Bruno S. Bruno was a street musician in Berlin who Herzog discovered and was immediately intrigued by. Though he had no formal training as an actor, Herzog cast Bruno S. as the lead in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, and in the process found out that the actor’s upbringing actually had some similarity to the character’s history of abuse and neglect. Though the actual Kaspar Hauser was only 17 when he arrived in Nuremburg, and Bruno was 41 when the film was made, he brings a childlike quality to the role. This bait and switch shouldn’t work, but for some reason it does. Bruno’s wild appearance and idiosyncratic mannerisms are those of a child who has been abandoned and allowed to grow up feral. The performance that Bruno gives here is highly affected, his speech patterns stilted and his physical movements highly stylized and mechanical, sometimes almost appearing painful. Bruno plays the young Hauser as if his mental illness and stunted social and emotional development are physical maladies, outwardly expressing their symptoms through his odd performance. I have to imagine that he leaned heavily on his experience being institutionalized throughout his life when crafting this character, if he even considered the performance to be acting at all. There are times in the film when it would seem that Bruno is actually channeling the historical Hauser, receiving strange signals through the ether that inform his impersonation. It’s a performance that can’t really be accurately described without someone seeing the film, because it is simply too strange and doesn’t have many precedents in film, to my knowledge. Again, the casting of a grown man with a history of serious mental illness and no acting experience to play the role of a feral teen shouldn’t work, but somehow, not only does it work, I can’t conceive of another way Herzog could have brought this character to the screen.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser fits in well with Herzog’s other early films. It furthers his cinematic obsession with idiosyncratic characters, many of which are driven to madness. Like Bruno, Herzog has always been something of an outsider artist, and I think that he, too, must have felt some affinity with the strange tale of Kaspar Hauser. Though it’s a simple and direct tale, Herzog presents his film with great style, giving this enigmatic fairy tale an air of import and profundity. The film is presented elliptically, and I’m not really sure how much time is meant to pass between Hauser’s arrival in Nuremberg and his sudden, shocking death, but it is a period of some years although it often seems like little time is elapsing at all. Herzog presents the film as a series of vignettes that show Hauser’s progress towards societal normalcy, but they often seem to have little causal relation to one another. Things seem to happen in the film at random, as there is no explanation given for a scene in which we see Bruno and the other circus performers fleeing from the townsfolk and hiding in trees, nor is there any reason given for Bruno’s attack at the hands of his neglectful caretaker late in the film or for the subsequent attack on him that ends in the stabbing that kills him. These events are simply presented, out of narrative context, as are a series of impressionistic sequences that depict seemingly faraway landscapes. These interstitial scenes are given a dreamlike quality through Herzog’s use of a Super8 camera, and the grainy, blurred images stand out in sharp contrast from the realist style of the rest of the film. Herzog never shies away from making unusual directorial choices and this particular film is clearly no exception.
I’m not sure if I can say that I really liked The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser very much, but I did find it a more intriguing film now than I did when I first watched in 12 years ago. I had forgotten some of the film’s peculiarities, and it has certainly remained in my thoughts more after this second viewing than it did initially. Bruno’s performance is one of a kind, but I think that his acting is much better in the later Stroszek as he taps into an emotionality that isn’t present at all in this film. Still though, I won’t be forgetting his mechanical, rigid performance anytime soon. The Super8 scenes are equally memorable to me, providing the film with a haunted quality. It would seem that I’m in the minority from looking at the incredibly positive critical response to the film both at its release and into the 21st century, but to me The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser feels like a somewhat lesser entry in the incredibly prolific Herzog’s broad filmography. I don’t mean that it’s a bad film at all, and in fact I think that it’s a very good film, it just doesn’t connect with me on a meaningful level. It’s an interesting movie for me to think about for a bit, but overall I doubt that I’ll be revisiting it many more times.