Werner Herzog’s re-imagining of the German legend of a boy raised in a cellar is re-released and showing in London cinemas this month.
The most moving of German director Werner Herzog’s films are often his most controversial. Almost 40 years after the release of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser the impact of the film has lost little of its power to shock and to mystify.
Herzog’s reimagining of the 19th century legend of Kaspar Hauser sees a young, almost mute, perhaps retarded man appear early one morning in Nuremberg unannounced and unchaperoned to the confusion of the townsmen and women. We know from the opening scenes of the film that Kaspar had been kept in a chamber isolated from human contact. He has acquired minimal language save one complete phrase, “I want to be a gallant rider, like my father before me”, planted by his captor, who perhaps is his father. Kaspar grunts, he has barely learned to walk and is amazed and sometimes fearful of the most simple of objects and animals. Herzog’s casting of Bruno S., a man found by Herzog working as a toilet attendant, makes the film all the more convincing due to Bruno’s history of speechlessness in his youth brought about by beatings by his prostitute mother.
Some members of the community are reluctant to accept Kaspar but the majority welcome him, although not as an equal but as an outsider, an immigrant who is eventually put to work as a member of a freak show, billed as one of the “four riddles of the spheres” alongside a dwarf, a savage from the new world and an autistic young Mozart.
The tale of Kaspar Hauser has become a regular fixation of German literature and film, appearing numerous times since its first literary rendition in the late 19th century. Before Herzog’s version, the most popular and explicit adaptation came from Jakob Wasserman’s novel Caspar Hauser: the Inertia of the Heart. As a Jew in early 20th century Germany, Wasserman found strong connections to the story of a man living in a community but not fully integrated as a member of it, writing as he was at the time of inequality and stigma of the Jewish people living in Germany. It also coincided with the emerging beliefs of educated men supporting notions of eugenics that spawned out of the newly accepted ideas of Darwinian theory in Western Europe. Evolution, productivity, purpose and genetic determination were the buzzwords of the day; minorities couldn’t be further from either power or mainstream public approval as they were then. It was the Brave New World that Huxley eloquently captured in his novel.
The context of Herzog’s account is almost certainly a trigger for his adaptation. Released in 1974, the film appeared in German cinemas whilst terrorist attacks struck German cities and aimed at German citizens from sources of marginalised communities, predominantly Palestinian liberation groups and Marxist-Leninist armed “urban guerrillas”, and appeared in cinemas worldwide as the farce of the Vietnam war rolled continuously on. Herzog, never shy to criticise German and Western culture, uses the story of Kaspar Hauser as a symbol for what he saw as the unaccepting, intolerant and bullish nature of the West, self assured and convinced of its Alpha Plus status in the world.
More so in Herzog’s rendition of the Kaspar Hauser legend than any other is the imperative for society to look within itself and see where it has gone wrong. Herzog’s Kaspar invites the audience to ponder its existential isolation. Kaspar is not only an outsider but an aspect of us all – he is a riddle that defies logicians, preachers and teachers, and represents Herzog’s attempts to demystify the unknown malaise that afflicted his contemporaries, and can still be applied today in what is arguably a more self-interested world more disengaged with nature than it was then. And wrapped up in Kaspar’s character is a hint of the image of Christ appearing immaculately with unknown origins to question the civilised world and purify its ills.
Herzog released The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser shortly after the 1972 Extremist Act, Radikalenerlass, was passed in Germany – it prevented “radicals” with questionable political persuasions from being hired in public sector jobs. It smacks of the oppression of liberty today, of extradition, detainment without charge, extraordinary rendition, and burqa bans.
Re-released in London this month the film still speaks powerfully to audiences. It appears as Germany has reestablished itself as the European super power and is perceived to be cocksure of itself, bullying smaller members of the EU to adhere to rules crafted because of the general acceptance of German dominance and superiority. The film appears at a time when the West is ever more fearful of outsiders, terrorist threats and emerging political unknowns.