The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974, Werner Herzog)

It is a story that feels so suited to Werner Herzog’s sensibilities it seems a surprise that it’s actually based on a real event in the early 1800s. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser follows the brief life of Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) who spent the first 17-years of his life chained in a cramped cellar with nothing but a toy horse to occupy his time and the occasional feeding visits from a mysterious man in a black overcoat and tophat.

One day he is dropped off in the middle of a quiet town square with a bible in one hand and a note explaining his unique circumstance in the other. He is adopted by a friendly couple and the town itself – learning to read, write, speak and integrate himself into the civilised world.

Having spent around two decades in mental institutions and with no training in acting, Bruno Schleinstein is the sort of casting that encapsulates Herzog’s penchant for blending documentary and fiction. It is difficult to imagine how Herzog could have better cast the role. Apparently, Schleinstein remained in costume for the duration of filming and could be often found sleeping on the floor.

Schleinstein has a face full of soul. He stares inquisitively in every direction – including directly at the camera and at us on a number of occasions – as the young foundling attempting to ingratiate himself into his surroundings. His interactions with the various characters in the film feel authentic and strangely touching.

Hauser asks many questions, the simplicity and tactlessness of which are given profundity by Schleinstein’s innocent presence and sing-song cadence. Confused at their lack of activity in a patriarchal environment, he asks his housekeeper, Katy: ‘What are women good for?’ He laments to his adopted father: ‘Why is everything so hard for me? Why can’t I play the piano like I can breathe?’ His matter-of-fact observation: ‘It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall,’ is quietly heartbreaking and poignant.

Kaspar Hauser’s inadvertently astute observations on human life clash with the entrenched beliefs and customs of society. His dreams of wandering groups through a desert point to a search for meaning that exists in all of us to varying degrees (‘It dreamed to me,’ he tells someone). Hauser spent his life in search of answers to those questions.

Characters like the secretary who mechanically documents events in the town and files them away, the close-minded priest and the equally close-minded scientist angered by Hauser’s response to his logic exercise, they all fail to answer them in any meaningful way. Like Hauser, we are born into existence asking these big existential questions and die without answers, not much the wiser. (8)

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