When Kaspar Hauser was found in Nuremberg in 1828, no one knew where he had come from. His fate remains largely mysterious to this day, leaving a lot of room for extrapolation and imagination, artistic, scientific and otherwise. The story of a man, who, by his own account, was held in captivity during his childhood and youth, which resulted in an inability to read and write, drew the attention of Werner Herzog. And no wonder—with the director’s anthropological interest in the outsiders, his relentless search for irrational truth and unshakable will to present disturbing clashes between nature and culture, Kaspar Hauser seems like the perfect embodiment of the German auteur’s fascinations.
Herzog’s camera is indeed fascinated by Kaspar from the very first scene in which we see him: in a cell, restrained and growling, constantly visited by the strange figure of a teacher/oppressor trying to force him into learning. Hauser, uninterested, prefers to focus on a little toy car, which he rather compulsively plays with. Directing our gaze on Kaspar’s body–dirty, raw and uncoordinated–Herzog opens the story with a portrayal of both an animal-like and child-like human being, one who can’t even walk. But his teacher’s violent attempts to socialize him turn out to be equally ruthless and pointless.
What could have been the dramatic spine of Every Man for Himself and God Against All (a.k.a. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) is only a prologue, in which Herzog establishes a visual and philosophical constellation to operate within. Just before Hauser enters the frame, there’s a short montage, a man paddling the boat on the river, a girl’s face behind the tall grass, the prison tower, which will eventually become the first Kaspar’s residence in Nuremberg. In between, Herzog throws a stunning shot of meadow caressed by wind—the only one in the whole film with nature existing on its own right, undisturbed by human presence. And this is a place from which Kaspar seems to come—as an instinct-driven, illiterate creature thrown into realms of civilization.
However, by establishing the opposition of nature and culture Herzog only sets a simplistic, bipolar structure ready to be undermined with ambivalence. When Kaspar is abandoned by his teacher in Nuremberg and once again begins the process of education, his behavior is catatonic, extremely tense, driven by fear. On the one hand, the only creature he communicates with—non-verbally—is a bird; on the other hand, it is concluded that the concept of danger, after all primal, is unknown to him. Hauser’s emotional responses—captured by Herzog’s impeccable direction of amateur Bruno S.—tend to be unpredictable. Gentle and tender in one moment, completely non-existent only a minute later.
If there are contradictions in Herzog’s portrayal of Kaspar Hauser (how can he be oblivious to danger, if he’s capable of fear?), it only goes to show how much “nature” and “civilization” are abstract and artificial concepts, with little relation to the phenomena they’re supposed to represent. And the socialization Kaspar undergoes is a process of coercing him into the culture of representation—the empire of signified and signifier, ruled by the cruel dictator: meaning. Hauser is being taught the codified connections between words and objects, rules of physics and mathematics, religious dogmas. What people of Nuremberg are trying to do is to make him a member of civilization overburdened with meaning, from which Roland Barthes escaped once to a much-less-obsessed-with-representation culture. (Adipex)
Herzog once famously said that he never concerns himself with the boring “truth of accountants.” In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, though he portrays culture and civilization as redundant and futile, he doesn’t necessarily express boredom, but sets out to condemn and ridicule at the same time. His critical blade sharpens especially in the scenes when Kaspar—who, according to the authorities, has to earn his keep—is turned into freak providing entertainment. The dictatorship of meaning is combined with the totalitarian regime of money. Cultural violence, motivated by economy, manifests itself by making Hauser—“the other”—a fetish for visual consumption. The uniqueness of Kaspar is quickly transformed into a commodity—ready and easy to monetize.
However, Herzog’s critique of civilization is most potent and vivid when the director displays his often underrated sense of humor. After Kaspar is found in the center of Nuremberg, a group of soldiers and magistrate authorities start to examine him. This is a truly wonderful comic scene, directed with an astute sense of rhythm and an awareness of the value of repetition. The main gag is provided by the small clerk (or rather accountant), whose devotion to cataloging everything is equally funny and disturbing. He’s the perfect servant of the conglomerate depicted by Herzog—a mundane everyman with a need to report. Of course, the bitter irony comes with the finale—of all people, it’s the accountant who gets the last word. Kaspar Hauser becomes a case. Closed case, naturally.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is more than a story about an illiterate man caught in the wrestling match between forces he can’t control. This becomes apparent when Kaspar—constantly defying the laws of logic with his own understanding of reality—meets a famous logician, who came to present him with the well-known “liar’s paradox.” The scientist warns Hauser there’s only one solution to the problem and is astounded at hearing Kaspar’s answer—a result of thinking outside the box. To defend his crumbling worldview, logician desperately insists Hauser is wrong. But what Herzog seems to be saying is that the only truth worth knowing lurks between the lines.
Such an unorthodox approach also defines the German director’s aesthetic. It is enough to mention that Herzog can abruptly cut from a close-up to a character walking away from the camera in order to know how much he creates his own language. In The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser mise-en-scène can be very stage-like and artificial, evoking a sense of absurd and creating an impressive balance between grotesque comedy and compelling drama. Herzog also uses a handheld camera to build a haunting atmosphere of violence and terror and his filmmaking instinct drives him to the very same place Kaspar Hauser occupies—in between genres, rules, techniques. Into a world of his own making.
Werner Herzog’s never-ending quest for, as he puts it, “ecstatic truth” is not only philosophical and cultural, but also artistic. There is a scene in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, when a pretentious count is voicing his opinion about Kaspar, using painfully cheap metaphors. Herzog’s cinematic vision seeks to avoid conventional poetry and invent or discover a new type of poetry—harder to define and reproduce. In that sense, the most important moment in the film—and one of the most crucial in Herzog’s oeuvre—is Kaspar Hauser standing alone on a square in Nuremberg, abandoned by his first teacher and not yet found by his next tutors. Both Kaspar and the surroundings remain silent and still. It’s a sheer visual moment of “in between,” a pause or interlude, impossible to categorize—an invaluable suspension of meaning in a world addicted to catalogs and reports.