09 February, 2009

Movie Review: The Engima of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

Werner Herzog's commitment to historical accuracy in The Engima of Kaspar Hauser, the true story of a half-wild foundling who in May 26, 1828, was discovered on the streets of Nuremberg carrying an unusual origin story, only illustrates how far-fetched Kaspar's claims were, elucidating the theories that he was a professional swindler and method actor. Kaspar, raised in a tiny, hay-strewn room for seventeen years, having never seen another human nor anything beyond his cellar walls before being dumped in Nuremberg by his mysterious caretaker, acquires language and culture with extraordinary rapidity, is more civil and intelligent than many of the citizens he eventually meets (making this film quite similar to Lynch's The Elephant Man), and behaves calmly, patiently, and insightfully, whereas almost every other documented case of actual feral children has resulted in severe mental trauma, extreme retardation, behavioral and emotional issues, and early death. Having passed the window of opportunity for enculturation, most feral children never gain basic human social skills. Kaspar, however, writes a journal, plays piano, and enlightens those around him before mysteriously being murdered.

To see Herzog treat Kaspar's story as an actual instance of long-term seclusion and not an elaborate hoax is a bit difficult to swallow at first, but the story eventually allows for scenes of meaningful commentary on society, culture, logic, and independence--scenes which justify the film's spot at #524 on the TSPDT? list.

Played by the odd-looking Bruno S., who was 41 at the time, Kaspar Hauser is the image of loneliness, confusion, and non-conformity. He has spent all his life passing minute after minute with no stimulation other than his--we assume--thoughts. Prior to leaving his cellar, he doesn't even have dreams (what images and situations would the dreams consist of? we can't imagine anything completely outside our own realm of experience... his dreams would be inseparable from the reality of sitting in the room). One would expect the world of wonders that greets him upon his release to be either frightening or exciting. Women and flowers and sunsets and architecture. Any Hollywood movie would show a chaotic blend of emotional ups-and-downs accompanying these discoveries (remember the awful At First Sight with Val Kilmer?); instead, Kaspar is disillusioned without even knowing it. The bigger his world becomes, the smaller it seems. Observing a tower, he remarks that it must be smaller than the room to which he was confined, which could be seen above him, below him, and all around him whereas he need only turn around to stop seeing the tower. A friend and mentor attempts to explain the flaws in his reasoning, but his disappointment is persistent. People are howling wolves to him, flowers are pointless, and the only happiness he has is the discovery of his own imagination. Inspired by reading, he can soon picture worlds beyond his own, worlds infinitely more peaceful and beautiful, worlds able to be controlled and subdued because they exist only in his dreams. His only comfort, he says, is in sleep.

Added to his disillusionment is the general disappointing value of human society: simpering nobility, cruel strangers, boring families, kowtowing bureaucrats, and pretentious intellectuals. A professor tests his development by guiding him through a logic experiment involving an encounter with a stranger at the crossroads between the Town of Liars and the Town of Truthtellers. Asking only one question, how could you know what town the stranger comes from? "I would ask him if he is a tree frog," Kaspar explains, eliciting the outrage of the tester, who dismisses the answer as being devoid of logic and completely unacceptable, instead offering a correct answer involving double negatives that makes no literal sense whatsoever.

There are plenty of similar scenes, including two in which Kaspar is showcased at both a circus sideshow and an elitist's fete (both of them very much the same), all of them adding up to a general desire for the viewer to retreat like Kaspar to a quiet room and never have to talk to another person again. The culmination comes after his mysterious murder, when the scientists and politicians who have pondered him for two years finally get to perform an autopsy. The protagonist's wet, gray brain is brought before the camera and cut in half, and the learned men discuss the size of his cerebellum and the swelling of his liver as if the cursory examination of his dead body could say far more about the unusual man than his insightful, iconoclastic words ever could.

But before that, on his death bed, he retreats to his imagination, telling those gathered around him the beginning of a story the end of which he cannot recall. Grainy footage shows us Berbers in the Sahara Desert, lost for miles, wandering in circles, consulting their compasses and scientific instruments to no avail. Finally they see an oasis in the distance that their science confirms, but the oldest and wisest among them bends to the sand, tastes the earth, and tells them they're full of shit. Their eyes have deceived them; their goal is in another direction. And it is. It's a beautiful story placing individual intuition and earthly awareness above science and collective corroboration. Which is exactly what Kaspar Hauser realizes in his two years among the humans: it's a hard and loud and stupid world, and sometimes you just need to retreat with your personal beliefs and insanities into a blessed isolation. Come to think of it--judging from Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn--that might just be what all of Herzog's movies are about.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
d/w: Werner Herzog
(Bruno S.)
TSPDT? #524

I have a feeling this isn't written very well. Blame it on my tiredness.

1 comment:

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