The Reeler


December 13, 2006

The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser

Scathing comedy of manners is also Herzog's most affecting character study

Werner Herzog's The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, a new print of which screens this week at BAMcinematek, isn't the legendary director's finest fiction film -- that honor belongs to Aguirre: The Wrath of God -- but it remains, after 32 years, his most sensitive and heartfelt character study. The typically morose Herzog left a mark on the German New Wave of the Seventies with a series of stories examining the darker side of human nature, a tradition he has kept alive in documentaries such as last year's Grizzly Man. Of course, Kaspar Hauser is nothing if not existentially bleak, but Herzog projects a striking quality onto his titular hero, one that prevails until the bitter end: sympathy.

The story, based on documented events, follows Kaspar (Bruno S.) from his enigmatic origin in a dark enclosure outside Nuremburg in 1828, where the scruffy, hulkish thirtysomething displays the intelligence and coordination of an infant. Following a crash course in both writing his nom de plume (given by a mysterious man in black who identifies himself as "daddy"), and learning how to walk (in a strangely amusing bit of slapstick), Kaspar is dropped off in the middle of town with a note in his hand asking to be enlisted. As he barely responds to other people and appears incapable of speech, the befuddled authorities choose to confine him for further research. Various locals take a liking to Kaspar, helping him cultivate a basic civility, and as he embarks on a steady journey toward admittance into European society, the movie blossoms into a scathing comedy of manners. When Kaspar finally learns to speak, his every statement erupts as though were a booming revelation; the shocked townsfolk scramble to quell his excitement, despite their initial encouragement of his language skills.

The impact of Kaspar's startling developments owe much to the remarkable range of Bruno S., who in the early scenes calls up the brutish appearance of Jack Black by way of Wolverine. As the creature gradually grows more human, comparisons to Frankenstein's monster become more apt. Herzog is famous for eking memorable performances from unlikely candidates (consider the cast composed entirely of little people in Even Dwarfs Started Small), and for Kaspar, he selected Bruno S., a man with a history of mental problems, quite deliberately; it's a detail that deepens the already chilling effects of Kaspar's experience.

While it's never clear how much Kaspar understands about the new world he is thrust into, the details of civilization he finds perplexing are incessantly provocative. When a high-minded, professorial type tests the cognitive abilities of the renowned "savage" with a logic puzzle, Kaspar wiggles his way out of the rat maze with poetic responses. Scolded for providing description in place of deduction, Kaspar, through no fault of his own, becomes an innocent pariah, rejected by the intellectual elite simply for being different. "The intelligence of this man is in complete confusion," one official says. As he learns to interact with the world, Kaspar's confusion expands into cosmic proportions, further setting up the unforgettable conclusion foreshadowed by an intertitle in the opening scene: "Don’t you hear that screaming all around you? The screaming men call silence?" Only Kaspar possesses the undervalued ability to try and listen.

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