Werner Herzog Season – The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
You certainly can’t accuse Herzog of being trapped in the same geographical or historical epoch in his movies as we move on to the next disk in the BFI box set, alighting from 16th century South America to the fatherland in the late 19th century, a rather quaint and rural environment seen through extraordinary eyes. Taking his inspiration from the true 1828 story of Kaspar Hauser Herzog finesses the mysterious yarn with some slight embellishments to serve his specific vision, and brought to screen one of the most unusual leading men of any period. Bruno Schleinstein was raised in poverty and was ruthlessly beaten as a child, enduring a brutal upbringing in a sequence of care homes and state shelters. Sensing a remarkable affinity Herzog cast him as the titular Hauser who appears in a quiet Nuremberg square after being released from a lifetime of captivity in a stable, having never seen the sky, or a tree, or absorbed other human contact other than a mute man draped in black who fed him throughout his bizarre upbringing. Consequently Kaspar has no concept of language or social conditioning that we all unconsciously digest, marking him as a remarkable vessel to observe the world and the structures we have erected around us, the veneer of polite civilization gnawing at the animal within.
Apart from a shuffle of intelligible grunts and snorts there isn’t a word spoken for the first fifteen minutes of this film, before Kapar’s mysterious jailor takes him into the wild green yonder, his purpose and motives a total mystery straight through to the film’s final reel. In intent if not quite in tone Enigma is a clear precursor to Under The Skin, the narrative orbiting a surrogate vessel to observe with acute detachment the strange vagaries of the human condition, our rituals and customs, the polite protocols and economic iniquities, these strange affectations which a visitor from an alien background might find difficult to discern. One is reminded of Herzog’s story of his own childhood, in the destitute poverty stricken rural lands of immediate post-war Germany, where he distinctly recalls seeing his first orange which he hadn’t even seen a picture or a photo of, tactile in texture and taste an artifact as exotic as a Martian egg. With the insights of an innocent or an inquisitive child Kaspar queries the unspoken rules of the land, asking ‘why do only women cook and sew?’ and ‘I cannot see how God made everything, that is absurd’….well, from the mouths of babes and all that….
The film opens with a hazy, almost sepia soaked images of landscapes and geographic features, fading like the withdrawing wisps in the purlieus of a fading dream. It’s the past, a time of mysterious intent and understanding, foreshadowed with a telephoto aperture mounted on a wide angled eye lens, giving the interstitial imagery an alien effect as the wind gently caresses corn, as a clock tower strikes another hour lost. These are artefacts rendered from an almost interstellar origin, perhaps Herzog’s attempt to give us Kasper’s inquisitive POV, his conditioning and understanding as far a reach from his contemporaries as a 19th century soul viewing our chaotic 21st century proscenium. The mysterious interloper is treated humanely, as more a curiosity than any threat, given shelter, sustenance and warmth, not treated as a freak monstrosity by his fellow men even when he turns to desperate employment at a travelling circus to pay his way and earn his keep. The film would have failed without Schleinstein’s otherworldly, naturalistic performance, if performance is even the appropriate word for his utterly convincingly aura of being from almost another dimension, like a bemused, clomping Bowie who fell to earth a century before this Nuremberg materialization. The clergy are bemused with Kaspar’s ideology and his oblique transmutations of all matters ecclesiastical, toward the end of the film he becomes a fashionable attendee at court for the chattering classes, an oddity politely subsumed into gilded society, before they tire of him in favour of the next unusual phenomenon or discovery. Through these story phases we see the lengthening of 19th century European enlightenment, scientific method and rigour weakening the Church’s rigorous grip on the reigns of universal truths and phenomenological plurality, Kaspar a metaphor of the epoch when new molecular and medical mysteries were supplanting the ancient warding of ritual and religion.
There is a lovely moment on the commentary when Herzog explains how during the morning of Kaspar’s discovery he applied a rhythm to the pacing in order to present the city waking up, making the film ‘hold its breath’, and one of his anecdotes of how people with diminished physical statures view the world in a very different way is, well, it’s just ‘classic’ Herzog. Over an uncertain period Hauser becomes a gentleman of modest status and prestige, through time cuts which Herzog never signals through traditional methods (slow dissolves, inter-title cards etc.), discreetly drawing a lilting vale over the entire ethereal enterprise before Hauser is enveloped in history. In the real world Bruno Schleinstein became something of an Outsider Art scene posterboy before his passing only four years ago, although there is another entrancing performance of his in the Werner canon that we will turn to shortly. This oddly disembodied and dreamy film is dedicated to the great critic Lotte Eisner, one of Herzog’s early champions and inspirations, igniting within him a flame to bring to cinema a ‘ecstatic truth’, of our world seen through the eyes of a dreamer whose mysterious life and transcendent tragedy echoes through the mists of time;