Rereleased to tie in with a two-month retrospective at BFI Southbank, it’s been almost forty years since Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) debuted on screens. Although a little obtuse and raggedy at times, this beguiling and fable-like yarn sits within his finest work. Loosely based on a real-life tale, the film follows Kaspar Hauser (Bruno Schleinstein) who has spent the first seventeen years of his life chained up like an animal in a confined, grotty cellar. One day, the young man is mysteriously released into captivity, taught some phrases and how to walk, and taken to the town of Nuremberg.
Unsurprisingly, Hauser’s looked upon as a genuine curio by the inquisitive townsfolk, and finds himself being entered into the freak show of a travelling circus, before a kindly Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast) adopts him. Under close scrutiny from the authorities, Hauser appears to be a savant of sorts. He soon learns to read and write, develops an aptitude for music and takes an unusual approach to the world he sees around him. He finds himself the object of intrigue for academics, local religious figures, but his growing fame also attracts tragedy. Part absurdist yarn, part heart-rendering treatise on human nature The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’s mix of naturalism and the surreal proves to be tricky to categorise.
Yet, underneath the genuine oddball nature of the film, there’s an unmistakable humanity which shines through. Herzog’s biggest masterstroke is in the casting of Bruno Schleinstein as the titular role. A musician without prior acting experience, Schleinstein spent much of his youth in mental institutions. It’s an extraordinary performance in which he seems to live the part, with his blank-faced vulnerability and naivety leading to some oddly touching moments. Hauser’s innocent, child-like view of the world and his questioning of everything around him are often very humorous.
Society believes him to be an outsider and he becomes the object of ridicule and derision for some. The irony is, he’s only piecing together his own set of (equally legitimate) values and logic in a world he is completely new to. The director would re-team with his lead actor for 1977’s Stroszek, but their collaboration on The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser has proved the most enduring, and rightly so. It’s a singular vision from an equally unconventional cinematic figure.