“Why is everything so hard for me?” That simple question epitomizes the poignant impact of The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, a drama from German writer-director Werner Herzog that’s also known as Every Man for Himself and God Against All. Based on the true story of a mysterious youth who appeared in a Bavarian village during the 19th century claiming to have spent his entire life locked in a basement—hence his inability to speak or even to perform basic life skills—the picture unfolds like a sad fairy tale. Shot in a minimalistic style but energized with artful compositions and lighting, the movie opens in a grim dungeon, where Kaspar (Bruno S.) is chained to the floor. Capable only of eating and playing with simple toys, Kaspar is perplexed when his guardian frees him, carries him outside for quick lessons in how to walk and how to speak an introductory sentence, and then delivers him to a small village.
The residents of the village discover Kaspar soon afterward, standing in a courtyard with a bewildered expression on his face and a bizarre handwritten letter from his guardian held in his hand. According to the letter, Kaspar was given to the guardian when Ksapar was an infant, but the guardian was too poor and too preoccupied with his own children to raise the boy properly. The villagers accept Kaspar as a ward of the state, teaching him hygiene and manners. The most melancholy and provocative scenes in the film depict Kaspar’s reactions when people try to explain religion. Beyond his inability to grasp abstract concepts, Kaspar cannot fathom the notion of almighty being who could tolerate the kind of loneliness and suffering that characterizes Kaspar’s life. Equally maddening is a scene of a university professor “testing” Kaspar’s ability to exercise logic: Kaspar proves clever and thoughtful, but because he cannot articulate his notions via the accepted vernacular of the intelligentsia, he’s deemed an idiot by default. As Kaspar says in a moment of existential despair, “I am so far away from everything.”
Throughout his career, Herzog has displayed a special ability for discovering obscure true-life stories that are suitable for conveying his singular worldview. Like the grim fictional feature Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and the harrowing documentary Grizzly Man (2005), among many others, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is filled with questions about the meaning of life. In Herzog’s best films, existence is portrayed a grind of hardship and suffering redeemed only by fleeting moments of compassion and transcendence. That’s why Herzog’s casting of Bruno S. in the lead role works so well, even though on many levels the casting is bonkers. In addition to being a nonactor, Bruno S. was in his 40s when he made Kaspar Hauser; the real Kaspar was a teenager when he first appeared. A former mental patient who worked as a laborer and a street musician, Bruno S. seems just as detached from the normal world as the real Kaspar must have been.
Since Herzog maintains a tight focus on the principal storyline, instead of venturing off into the tangents that dilute many of his films, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is one of the director’s strongest efforts. Like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is a profound examination of society’s unwillingness to embrace those who are truly different. As seen through the unusual prism of Herzog’s directorial perspective, Kaspar comes across as a being so closely connected to the basic rhythms of the universe that his otherness is a living condemnation of the walls society builds to protect itself from natural forces.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser: RIGHT ON