The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – Chronicling Innocence
Sometimes auteur filmmakers make films on subjects that amused them, so as to transfer their personal experience to the audiences. For instance eminent filmmaker Akira Kurosawa made Dreams (1990) based on his actual dreams. Noted German wizard Werner Herzog after making his internationally acclaimed work Aquirre, the Wrath of God (1972) went on to make ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’ (1974).
The film follows the true story of a mysterious man Kaspar Hauser who appeared from nowhere in the town of Nuremberg in 1828. He was barely able to speak and had a strange note in his hand. He attracted the curiosity of everyone in that town and while enquired by the officials he was hardly able to recount his past. Through his clumsy narration the people, and through them we the audience, get a vague picture of his past.
For the first 17 years of his life Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) was held captive and chained in a dungeon, what looks like a barn or a piggery. Just a toy horse keeps him engaged all day. He is devoid of any human contact except for a man who visits him every day, feeding him. Neither the reason for the captive nor the identity of the visiting mysterious man is divulged. One day the man takes Kaspar out, teaches him a little to walk and to utter few phrases and leaves him with a strange note in the town of Nuremberg. He soon becomes a subject of curiosity for the towners and a subject of mockery for a mischievous bunch and a fun stuff for the kids.
Later poor Kaspar ends up in a circus as an exhibit, entertaining people. He is rescued by Herr Daumer (Walter Ladengast) and attempts to transform him to a normal man. Two years on, under the care of Daumer Kaspar reinvents himself. Now he socializes more, had learnt to play piano and throws his question to everyone from the visiting priests to Herr’s servant Kathe. It is interesting to note the logic Kaspar develops for himself, and the way he applies his self- contrived logic to understand the world around him. It reminds us of our nostalgic innocence brimming childhood.
After several years Kaspar is attacked by the same strange man who kept him captive in his earlier years, again the resent for the attack remains unexplained. Later he is attacked again, this time brutally stabbed. In his death bed he wishes to narrate the story of ‘the caravan and the desert’ of which he knows only the beginning. The story he says tells about the caravan led by a blind tribe man. The story doesn’t end so as the mysteries about Kaspar.
Herzog reconstructed every detail from the original letters written by Kaspar during his life. He faithfully has reconstructed everything about that man, except the fact that he casted Bruno who was 41 at the time of filming, to play Kaspar who was actually 17 years old, for the titular role. There are striking similarities between Bruno and the character he portrayed on screen. Herzog found him in a documentary “Bruno the Black – One Day a Hunter Blew His Horn (1970)” and immediately wanted to cast him for this role. HE was less mentally organized all his life, perhaps owing to his trauma filled tragic childhood. Bruno had developed a notable talent in music. The director remembers Bruno to be suspicious about everyone in the sets including the director. He was very nervous while performing, so Herzog had to arrange everything and everyone in the set as Bruno sees comfortable.
After this project Herzog again roped in Bruno for his Stroszek (1977). When Bruno passed away in 2010, Herzog in his tributary note stated that though he had worked with many artists Bruno is the best to work with.
After seeing the film one might wonder what enigma shrouds around such an unexciting personality. The enigma is not of Kaspar Hauser but around his life and veiled past. It is this mystery around him that should’ve gained interest of the maker and attempt on this cinematic re-creation of Kaspar’s life. Besides the evolution or rightly put the rebirth of Kaspar in a way sidelines the phases of a child’s growth. The way one learns and develops logic from personal experiences resembles very close to Kaspar’s experiences in the film. The stresses that fill his talks all through the film pronounce his determination and are akin to the strong convictions that a child develops for oneself. So is his adamancy. If you are an ardent fan of realism in cinema you can bite this.