THE MYSTERY OF KASPAR HAUSER

Each for Himself and God against All (1974)

By Kraft Wetzel

[This film review of Werner Herzog’s “The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser” is translated from the German in: Herzog/Kluge/Straub by Peter W. Jansen and Wolfram Schutte, 1976, Carl Hansen Verlag, Munich/Vienna, pp.108-112.]


1828. From his cellar hole, he grew up alone. Penned in like an animal, Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S.) was dragged out by an older man and after a rough training in walking exposed in Nurnberg. The neglected foundling first came into police custody and then – to the relief of the town moneybags – as a curiosity in the circus. From there, he ran away and found shelter with Mr. Daumer where he learned about art, religion and science. For unknown reasons, he was murdered a short time later.

This is only the outward framework set by historical facts with which Herzog reinvented Kaspar’s intellectual and emotional development in a sequence of episodes replicating the stations of a passion: first experiences with language, first feelings of pain, anxiety, joyful contact and emotion. “I feel music in my breast.” After a two-year gap that leaves out the agonizing process of experience and human development that interested Francois Truffaut in his "Wolfjungen" (1969), Kaspar comes into conflict with religion and dominant rationality. Two ministers ask him whether he felt any “natural idea of God” in his cellar hole. No, Kaspar replied. He also did not believe in creation out of nothing. A little later he insisted on the independent life of the apple. A thrown apple hopped over the foot that should have stopped its course. “A smart apple,” Kaspar exclaims. Finally with natural wit, Kaspar solves a complicated logical problem that a professor raised with a double negative. The learned man was irritated by Kaspar’s abstract conclusion.

Kaspar had unpleasant experiences with representatives of the dominant order. He regarded the local officials (at the beginning) as an annoying absurdity that had to be tested and kept at a safe place. Later, a decadent sensitive English lord sought to accept the foundling. However Kaspar’s “barbaric” mechanically-drilled piano playing duped the fine salon. When Kaspar began to crochet with the coat rack, he completely forfeited the favor of the elegant ladies and gentlemen who had seen in him an astonishingly exotic monster. In Kaspar, details like these fit together in a world experience where society only occurs as a coercive context and he feels powerless and suffering. He expresses this in sentences that are like shrapnel: “Yes, it seems to me that my appearance in this world has been a hard fall.” Bruno S. articulates every word in a painful and strenuous way like a deaf-mute in the land of silence and darkness. Articulation and speaking require effort.

Kaspar’s visions include hints of another better world. On his deathbed, he tells of a blind leader of a caravan who tastes the sand and points to the right way while the seeing ones with their compasses break down. Metaphorically Herzog made concrete this wholly other formulated in the blind seer in pictures of pacified, dream-like beautiful nature that depict Kaspar’s long ordeal like ciphers of redemption. “This portrait is charmingly beautiful/ My heart is filled with new stirring/ Is this the feeling of love?” Herzog quotes from Mozart’s “Magic Flute.” Tamino’s aria is like a framework around this tale of woe.

A fervent idolization of nature signals a fundamental change in Herzog’s perception. In “Signs of Life” and “Even Drawfs Begin Small,” the burnt-out landscape stood in irreconcilable contrast to its protagonists and condemned their heroic rebellion from the beginning to failure. In “Fata Morgana” or “Mirage,” nature appeared ambivalent, half promise and half refusal. “One constantly sees what we have and how it could be.” In another sense, nature was also experienced as conflicting in “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”: deadly for the imperialist conquistadors, life-giving for the Indians and a delight to the onlooker. “Each for Himself and God against All” first carries out the turn to the romantic transfiguration of nature and prepared “The Land of Silence and Darkness” where the deaf-blind peasant’s son at the end embraced a tree.

Herzog gives a place in nature to the wholly other. In “Signs of Life,” he still had a nearly clinical distance to the rebel Stroszek. In “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” the ironic distancing that set the tragic-comic accent, was increasingly suspended through the unconcealed fascination with Aguirre’s developing insanity. Finally, Kaspar Hauser seems to be Herzog’s alter ego, a radical expression of his own doubt in the dominant seeing, feeling and thinking, in a social order whose inner contradictoriness and disintegration seemed inaccessible to him. Only the total negation of existing reality in the name of the wholly other in Kaspar Hauser, not in the name of his stifled possibilities remains to him: romantic affront instead of socialist opposition and solidarity.

“Each for Himself and God against All” is the culmination and conclusion of Herzog’s past work. The film alludes to earlier works, e.g. the pianist and the hypnotized rooster from “Signs of Life,” the smallest dwarf from “Even Dwarfs Begin Small” and the Indian Hombrecito from “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” These characters do not only summarize Herzog’s films in the outward sense. In the figure of Kaspar, the world hostility of the titanic rebel is combined with the other foreign way of seeing and feeling. That makes this Kaspar Hauser so rebellious and different that his attempted integration had to fail. The film abandons officials to absurdity. In the autopsy of Kaspar Hauser, they discovered a great little brain and a little great brain and declared triumphantly: “At last we have an explanation for this strange man!” Herzog insists on the provocative strangeness of his figures and himself.