Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Werner Herzog's 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser was his follow-up to the all-time great Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starring Klaus Kinski, and Herzog's first of two collaborations with Bruno S, the other of which (Stroszek) I recently reviewed. These leading men are two of the most remarkable, impressive, intriguing, and fascinating of actors. Neither could've really made their mark in history starring in movies other than those by Herzog. Sure, Kinksi was in literally hundreds of movies, but how many non-Herzog roles is he remembered for? Bruno pretty much starred only in these two Herzog movies, and yet that was enough for him to become a known name in movie history. And it is with good reason.

I wrote of Bruno in Stroszek "He seems particular. There was only one of this guy made" and spoke of his "extraordinary performance of great focus and intensity" "with a look of intense and impenetrable depth" and that much is true of his work as Kaspar Hauser as well. Kaspar is a real historical person, found in 1828 in Nuremberg holding just a Bible and an anonymous note with vague details of his life. He spent the first 20 or so years of his time on Earth locked in a cellar, no interactions with other people or animals or nature, a toy horse to play with, and only a man in a black cloak and top hat who would come give him food. One day that man releases him from this prison after teaching him the concept of writing, and teaching him the phrase "I want to be a gallant rider like my father was before me." He otherwise has no concept of speech, animals, even eating, until the kind people of the town take him in and he begins to learn. But much like his character arc in Stroszek, it seems like this world might be too much for this man.

It's a very sad story, filled with profound, odd, and strangely affecting observations from Kaspar. "It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall." "The music feels strong in my heart... I feel so unexpectedly old" or when the gentle family he's staying with is giving him his first bath in years "Mother, my skin is coming off" or even the omniscient opening caption "Do you not then hear this horrible scream all around you? This scream that men call silence." It's peculiarly haunting in much of its time. Bruno being teased by the drunk local men, spending time being shown off in a circus attraction, or in high society as a different kind of circus attraction. Kaspar thinks and feels deeply, but doesn't have the lifetime of experience to have learned how to process everything around him. It lends a childlike wonder and stubbornness and fear to him.

This is, aesthetically, a rustically beautiful movie, as Herzog's always are. He has a way of finding wonderful images and ones that stick in our minds. Here, I'm thinking of the painterly boat ride Kaspar takes while a lone swan swims in the distance. Or of his dreams, sometimes slightly out of focus, of nature scenes. Also Kaspar's dream of innumerable people walking up a foggy mountain to find Death at the top, before walking back down. Herzog's movies play in our minds in an unspoken way much like music. His work worms it way into our minds in the best possible manner. It's what makes him one of the truly singular and best of filmmakers.

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