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 discovered 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 to communicate with others. Released suddenly into the outside world, Kasper must rely on the kindness of strangers to help him adapt. With the aid 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’s astuteness sharpens, 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, 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 his 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, 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 on an equal level? As Kasper, 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.