“I want to be a gallant rider like my father was before me”
If any true story of mystery and perhaps madness were to align itself with Werner Herzog‘s sensibilities, that of young Kaspar Hauser is it. Here was a seventeen-year old boy found standing in Nuremburg clutching a note addressed to the cavalry captain. No one knew how he got there or where he was from until he was ultimately taught to read, write, and think enough to get by in normal day-to-day life. This is when tales of growing up imprisoned within a tower, nothing but a toy horse to keep him company, were told. The unknown man who fed him and expressed in that initial note a barebones account of why he raised him like he did remained that way: anonymous. Five years passed and Kaspar was dead.
Does Herzog’s cinematic version Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle [The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser] presume to explain why the boy arrived where he did or share the reasons for his death? No. It actually seems as though the director doesn’t care about interpretation or rumor at all. He literally just puts what he knows from written accounts onscreen without embellishment or agenda in such a way that I’m not even sure I have the latitude to come to my own conclusions. There’s little wiggle room or moments for chance—the years simply turn and Kaspar grows with his newfound education allowing for his unorthodox thought process to both surprise and distract those willing to listen. History believes he killed himself, Herzog just agrees that he died.
It’s all so matter-of-fact that we wonder what the purpose of telling the story is. There’s obviously danger lurking with the nefarious “father-like” figure residing below the action (Hans Musäus), but even when this gentleman returns to inflict harm on the titular enigma he hardly supplies a forum for discovery. This man is a specter that comes and goes without identity or reason. Herzog can’t even know if the person who attacks Kaspar later in life is even the same man—but it’s intriguing to think so. Rather than help us come to a conclusion or supply forensic evidence, his inclusion as a catalyst is merely one more unexplainable detail. It’s like Kaspar was unleashed upon the world to be an unsolvable puzzle and nothing more.
There’s a certain appeal to this type of document. Rather than provide a mystery to be solved, Kaspar’s tale serves as a record of the unknown. The film exists to preserve the curiosity of his life while purposefully ensuring it remains unsolved. We follow the young man (played by middle-aged street performer Bruno Schleinstein of whom Herzog plucked from obscurity to embody a role three decades his junior) with skepticism and hope. We pity his dismal beginnings, worry for his initial year in the public eye, abhor the decision to place him in a circus, and commend Professor Georg Friedrich Daumer (Walter Ladengast) for finally giving him a home and regimen to evolve into as self-sufficient and educated a man he can.
Those surrounding Kaspar seek to let science explain who and what he is while refusing to acknowledge the horrid upbringing’s affect on his emotional growth. This is perhaps the most intriguing part of the foundling’s history: he becomes a project to make whole without taking into account the seventeen years that broke him. He is dismissed by most, feared by some, and loved by the least, but those who love him do completely. They strive to give him what he needs, but never look to return to the past. A visit to the tower that imprisoned him becomes so warped by spatial relationship questions devoid of feeling that we must empathize with his plight. He has become a science project, his humanity long disappeared and uncertain to return.
Despite this fact, however, one cannot deny Schleinstien’s effective performance—said to be almost a natural representation of the actor himself. The way he avoids eye contact, his matter-of-fact delivery of lines, and the utter confusion constantly washing over him lend an authenticity to the role. We see his fright and his frustration, not for things or actions that he doesn’t yet understand. But in the people that are trying to force him into a role he doesn’t have the capacity to inhabit. Daumer is the only one who truly has Kaspar’s wellbeing at the forefront, but even he forgets about the impact of his origins. These academics see opportunity for the future, believing the events that brought the boy here are less important than the events leading him forward.
Herzog shoots with a carefully discerning eye for reality. Just like Kaspar confuses dreams with what’s happening around him, the line separating the two is non-existent onscreen despite filters laid over stories of memory and imagination. We don’t know which of Kaspar’s conversations are which, only that each one has left an indelible mark on what he is now. In his mind is trapped a story without an end, a direct contrast to his life being an end without a beginning. Perhaps he knows exactly who it was that kept him captive. Perhaps if he had more time he might have set the record straight. Instead we’re left with unanswered questions and a movie about our desire to transform the unknown rather than learn from it.