The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser / Bruno S. by John A. A. Logan
Just returning from a very late night walk (less traffic, less exhaust fumes to consume, less people…yes, more slow-trawling police cars checking you out as you walk, which is aggravating, but still we are not at the stage of Ray Bradbury’s “Pedestrian” yet where any lone strollers will be picked up off the pavement by a robotic police car and spirited away)…anyway, as I was saying, just back from a very late night walk finishing on a hill, I sat down in my sweat and turned on the TV, Freeview Channel 15, to see that a film was just beginning, the titles still on the screen…The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser…
I had heard of this 1974 film over the years but never seen it. I knew it was directed by Werner Herzog. Herzog’s film, Aguirre, Wrath of God, has always haunted me a little…
Bruno Schleinstein plays Kaspar Hauser in the film.
A 41-year-old self-taught street musician and forklift driver, son of a prostitute, and a beaten child who had spent most of his youth, 23 years, in mental institutions, Schleinstein had never acted before playing Kaspar. Later, after Schleinstein’s 2010 death, Herzog would describe him as the best actor he had ever worked with – “There is no one who comes close to him.”
The film opens with Kaspar chained in the tiny cellar where he has lived in isolation for his first 17 years, with only his toy wooden horse for company, and the man who comes to feed him. One day that man forces him to his feet, carries him off into the countryside, has a go at teaching him how to walk and talk a little, then abandons him in the main square of the town of Nuremberg. The year is 1828, and the appearance of Kaspar arouses great interest in the various townspeople.
Gradually, Kaspar is taught how to eat at a table, speak, dress, think, philosophise, read, write, and play the piano. But he always learns in his own particular way, as though the furnace desert of solitude he had spent his first 17 years in has made him so fundamentally different in nature from his new fellows, that it must inform and adjust any information, art, or practice that they teach him. This is alternately infuriating and hilarious for those who try to teach Kaspar. Nothing about him is quite “right”. He can learn philosophy, argue logic, but it will not be quite within the bounds of reason and sanity as those commodities are known in 19th century Germany (or for that matter, in the 21st Century technological modernity we inhabit now). It is as though, at the remote heart of Kaspar, lies a conscientious objection to everything his new teachers are telling him constitutes objective reality. The new data just doesn’t measure up to the power and depth of the education he had received from those 17 years in the darkness of the cellar. There’s a wonderful scene where Kaspar meets a professional logician and philosopher across a table, someone who has been set on him to measure the sanity of his mind, and Kaspar, knowing that he is meeting an emissary of a kind of violence in the guise of this emissary of a kind of knowledge, sets about applying his own intellect to the question posed by the logician. He fails to give the correct answer, in the eyes of the logician, but, as the only witness notes, Kaspar’s answer is clearer than the supposedly correct answer. (And much funnier).
The film ends with Kaspar’s dreams and visions, and by then the whole film will have come to seem like a helter skelter panoply of dream and vision, for the viewer, and for Kaspar, in comparison to the dead monotony of the 17 years in the lonely cellar, in which, when Kaspar is asked later, he says he never dreamed of anything at all.
Roger Ebert wrote in his 2007 review of the film, ‘Kaspar speaks as a man to whom every day is a mystery: "My coming to this world was a terribly hard fall." And think of the concept being expressed when he says, "It dreamed to me ..." In Herzog the line between fact and fiction is a shifting one. He cares not for accuracy but for effect, for a transcendent ecstasy. "Kaspar Hauser" tells its story not as a narrative about its hero, but as a mosaic of striking behavior and images: A line of penitents struggling up a hillside, a desert caravan led by a blind man, a stork capturing a worm. These images are unrelated to Kaspar except in the way they reflect and illuminate his struggle. The last thing Herzog is interested in is "solving" this lonely man's mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him.’
In his 2010 obituary for Bruno S. in the Guardian, Ronald Bergan quotes Herzog at length: "Bruno is a man whose life in his youth was catastrophic and obviously made him a 'difficult' person to deal with. Sometimes he would stop work by ranting against the injustices of the world. I would stop the entire team in their tracks." Bergan notes that Herzog would tell them: "Even if it takes three or four hours of non-stop Bruno speaking about injustice we... would all listen. I would always make physical contact with him. I would always grab him and just hold his wrist. Otherwise, he is a man of phenomenal abilities and phenomenal depth and suffering. It translates on the screen like nothing I have ever done translates on to a screen. He is, for me, the Unknown Soldier of Cinema."
Perhaps, though, it is best to end with Bruno S.’s own words on himself.
He often referred to himself in the third person.
In the film, Stroszek, his second and last directed by Herzog, Bruno said, “Bruno is still being pushed around, not physically but spiritually; here they hurt you with a smile.”
By the late 1970s, the short-lived fame from the two films with Herzog had ended, and Bruno S. made one memorable statement about what happened to himself when that fame ended, and again he made that statement in the third person -
“Everybody threw him away.”