One of the undisputed masterworks of the New German Cinema, Werner Herzog’s The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (its German title translates as “Everyone for himself, and God against all”), which screens this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, begins with a series of pastoral scenes of the German countryside. The swelling music and windswept fields evoke the romantic spirit of the early nineteenth century, but the subtitle—an unattributed paraphrase of a line from Georg Buchner’s Lenz—asks, “But can you not hear the dreadful screaming all around that people usually call silence?” The ironies, tensions, and contradictions expressed so potently in these opening moments hardly require explication, and would probably sound hopelessly banal if I tried to offer one, but it should suffice to say that with Kaspar Hauser, Herzog intends on both demystifying and remystifying human experience, to look at the world through the eyes of a man with the mind of a child and to respond with a gasp of wonder and an existential howl.
Kaspar Hauser was a real person, born sometime around 1812, found in the streets of Nuremberg in 1828 holding a prayer book in one hand and a letter in the other. Hauser had spent the first decade or so of his life in complete isolation, chained in a dark room with a toy wooden horse. A few years before he was found, a man began making periodic visits, teaching him a few words and phrases, as well as how to write his name. Known as the “foundling”, Hauser may have been a descendent of the royal house of Baden, though the controversy surrounding his origins rages to this day.
While Herzog dramatizes the wider attention generated by Kaspar’s sudden appearance, he’s ultimately more concerned with the philosophical, intellectual, and moral complexities of Kaspar’s personal experience. Bruno S., a street orphan who had no previous acting experience, delivers a remarkable performance in the lead role, his face registering Kaspar’s confusion, joy, terror, and genius all at once—Kaspar somehow manages to function as a metaphor and siphon and also as a genuinely sympathetic protagonist (his tears of pain, upon touching a flame for the first time, are tremendously moving). Kaspar is constantly offered as contrast to systems of logic, order, power, and language, whether they are clergy, the academy, or the social and political elite. Yet Herzog never loses sight of the beauty of his natural humanness; Kaspar’s heart swells while listening to a friend play music; he pauses, awestruck at his own image reflected in a barrel of water.
As I sit at home (ironically enough, recovering from an acute case of laryngitis, an appropriate malady from which to suffer while pondering this particular film), still haunted by last night’s viewing (my second), I’m struck by both the beauty and boldness of this film. Herzog has always been a rather icy, intellectual filmmaker, and in a way, this film is no exception — if anyone cares to, I’d be happy to spend hours discussing this film in the context of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (that is, as soon as I get my voice back). But The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser is something more. It has an emotional expanse rare for the filmmaker, becoming altogether, and unexpectedly, devastating as it reaches its astonishing and unforgettable closing scenes.