The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)

by MJ Wayland

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) Werner Herzog, Bruno S.

“In 1828, a ragged boy was found abandoned in the town of N.” reads the opening text of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser or to use its German title, Every Man For Himself And God Against All.

The ‘N’ is Nuremburg, but the reluctance to identify the real location of this true mystery hints early at the film’s approach to historical material. Indeed, Werner Herzog is barely interested in investigating the enigmatic origins of a foundling who had been deprived of all human contact and knowing just one phrase of German, before his sudden emergence as a teenager. Instead, Herzog is more preoccupied with anthropological issues, throwing his pre-cultural everyman into a world of social pretence, academic pomposity and exploitation, to see what comes out of the ensuing confrontations.

Always closer to the children and animals that he encounters than to adults, Hauser is both a wide-eyed innocent and holy fool, exposing the unnatural follies of those around him while embodying Herzog’s bold thesis that it is civilisation itself which ruins humanity.

“It seems to me that my coming into this world was a terribly hard fall,” declares Hauser after he has been taught to speak, and like his childlike protagonist, Herzog himself struggles to find his feet. At first meandering about in dull period detail and only beginning to come into his own at the point, about a third of the way in, where Hauser joins the local circus. From here on in, with its dwarves, freaks and wild outsiders, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser comes across as a summation, even a pastiche, of Herzog’s entire early-Seventies filmography, but at least in this parade of caricatured grotesques, who amplify and reflect Hauser’s alienation, there is something at last to hold the attention.

Herzog’s real masterstroke is the casting of troubled Berlin street musician Bruno S. A natural fit for the visionary lost boy, he would later rejoin Herzog for the thematically similar, but better, Stroszek (1977).

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