by Allan Fish
(West Germany 1974 110m) DVD1/2
Aka. Every Man for Himself and God Against All/Jeder Fur Sich und Gott Gegen Alle
Are you a tree-frog?
p/d/w Werner Herzog ph Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein ed Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus m J.Pachelbel, T.Albinoni, Orlando diLasso, W.A.Mozart art Henning V.Clerke
Bruno S. (Kaspar Hauser), Walter Ladengast (Daumer), Hans Musaus (unknown man), Brigitte Mira (Kathe), Michael Kroecher (Lord Stanhope), Willy Semmelrogge (circus director), Henry Van Lyck (cavalry captain), Elis Pilgrim (pastor), Enno Patalas (Fuhrmann), Volker Prechtel (guard),
Through his series of memorable collaborations with actor Klaus Kinski (particularly those great studies of ego- and megalomania Fitzcarraldo and the earlier Aguirre, Wrath of God), Werner Herzog is guaranteed his place in movie history. It is therefore perhaps ironic that his greatest film does not showcase the undoubted talent of Kinski, but an anonymity, in every sense of the word. Unlike many films dealing with such enigmatic mysteries, it does not even attempt to explain the central mystery, but rather to see the world through the eyes of its protagonist. And a very cruel but beautiful world it is.
In 1828 a young man, Kaspar Hauser, is dropped off into the town square in Nuremberg and left there by the man who has been his only contact with the outside world. The letter he carries in his hand informs those who read it that he has been kept effectively imprisoned in a small dingy cellar for his entire life, since being left to the unknown man’s care as a foundling. Though some of the everyday townsfolk show compassion, it is a well to do gentleman who teaches him the finer things in life. Sadly, however, Kaspar Hauser’s happiness is short lived.
Enigma truly is a gut-wrenching film, right from the opening caption (“don’t you hear all that horrible screaming all around you? That screaming men call silence?”) It reminds one subconsciously of Browning’s Freaks and, especially, Lynch’s later The Elephant Man. Indeed, both these nineteenth century enigmas, Hauser and Merrick, were reduced to sideshow freaks, had physical deformities and died young. Yet the tones of the films themselves could not be more different. Herzog’s film analyses man’s inherent naivety in believing in logic as the answer to everything. Kaspar’s very being, his very existence, and his arrival as if from outer space, goes against everything that society believes can be taken as fact. Outwardly he may look like a village idiot, but inside Kaspar is a soulful man of great tenderness, trapped forever in the horrors of his youth, but drawn towards beauty. And few films have so perfectly captured the wonder of nature more vividly than Herzog’s film; Herzog’s photographer refusing to prettify the surroundings and letting the visuals speak for themselves. And none was more powerful than that epic shot of people climbing up and down a mountain towards and away from Death himself, Kaspar’s very own premonition of his own demise.
Above all things, however, the greatest factor in the film’s success is the central performance of non-professional Bruno S.. It’s a performance to truly strike awe into the viewer, and one which a trained actor would have been hard pressed to match. Herzog’s intentions here are of course open to debate but, in using such an actor, he effectively had a blank canvas on which to draw his performance. Bruno, in turn responded from a blank canvas of his own, one all the more suited to the central character. (Kaspar himself was taught everything from scratch, so Bruno’s performance is all the more appropriate for it.) With his ragged hair and his truly uniquely intense eyes, he’s a truly unforgettable figure, and when he finally meets his end, it’s one of the most touching demises in film history, just as the real life cause célèbre was one of the most tragic figures of his day. Not only Herzog’s greatest film, but one of the great films of its nation’s cinema and modern cinema in general. Furthermore, I guarantee you will not hear Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’ or Albinoni’s ‘Adagio’ again without thinking of Bruno S..