Friday, June 17, 2011

#315. The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Bruno S., Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira

Trivia:  Werner Herzog discovered the lead actor, Bruno S., in a documentary about street musicians

The setting is a small village in 19th century Germany. A young man named Kasper Hauser (Bruno S.) is found one morning standing in the middle of town, unable to speak and barely able to walk properly. 

Prior to this particular morning, Kasper had spent his entire life locked away in a basement, where a strange benefactor (Hans Musaeus) fed him regularly, yet never bothered to teach the boy how to communicate with others. Released suddenly into the outside world, Kasper must rely on the kindness of strangers to help him adapt. 

With the help of Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast), Kasper learns the intricacies of village life, and is soon considered an upstanding member of the community. Yet as Kasper becomes more astute, he finds society to be as cold and empty as the small cell he once called home, and wonders aloud if he will ever find fulfillment in a world such as this. 

As a means of having art imitate life, director Werner Herzog chose Bruno S. - himself an enigma with a tragic past - to play the title role. The son of a prostitute, Bruno was beaten so severely as a child that he lost hearing in one ear, causing his mother to ship him off to a mental institution, where he lived for the better part of two decades. 

In casting Bruno (who was in his early 40s, yet playing a teenager in this film), Herzog must have believed the actor's own sheltered upbringing would make him perfect for the part, especially since he was one of the few available who, like his character, could look upon the mechanisms of society with an outsider’s point of view. 

The effect works exactly as Herzog intended, and we can see the chaos raging in Kasper’s mind through Bruno’s tempered performance. At one point, Kasper is speaking with Pastor Fuhrmann (Enno Patalas) about the existence of God. Kasper states, in no uncertain terms, that he cannot fathom how God could create everything out of nothing. The Pastor replies that Kasper should cease asking such questions, and rely on faith above all else in spiritual matters. Having just started to grasp reality, how can Kasper commit to faith? How can both possibly exist within him on an equal level? 

As the title character, Bruno exudes the innocence of a man re-born into a world that is foreign to him, and yet his innocence, at times, also breeds a simple logic, one that occasionally proves much more effective than the learned opinions of the men instructing him. 

In The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Herzog takes a long, hard look at society from the outside, seeing it through the eyes of a man who is as inspired by its intricacies as he is frustrated by its structure. According to Kasper, the world as defined by professors and theologians is much more complex than it need be. Locked away for many years, Kasper Hauser nonetheless saw things more clearly than most others. 

Even if he was the only one who knew it.



Klaus said...

One of my favorite Herzog films and an incredible performance by Bruno Schleinstein. How Herzog is able to coax these kinds of performances out of non-actors is perplexing.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Klaus: This is among my favorite Herzog works as well (just behind AGUIRRE and ahead of STROSZEK).

And yes, he does have a talent for getting what he wants from his actors, whether it be from a near-maniacal Klaus Kinski or an entire cast performing under hypnosis (HEART OF GLASS).

Klaus said...

For sure, and I don't ever recall any of Kinski's performances outside of Herzog's Direction being anything memorable.

And as for "Heart of Glass" - it is one freaky film. I'm not convinced that the entire cast needed to be under hypnosis - but Herzog seems willing to try anything once - as "Even Dwarfs Started Small" (1970) goes to show.

DVD Infatuation said...

@Klaus: Kinski always had a commanding presence, which kinda took over in every film he made an appearance in, but like you, it's only in Herzog's films that I specifically remember his performance as well. With Hertzog, Kinski complimented his persona with some actual talent, and the two were magic together.

As for HEART OF GLASS, I think only Bruno Ganz was NOT hypnotized, but yeah, I don't think all of them had to be put under, though it was, as you say, different.

And for the record, EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL is one of my favorite Herzog films, right up there with AGUIRRE, KASPER HAUSER and GRIZZLY MAN! I'll definitely be covering that one at some point in the future!