Original release: November 1st, 1974
Running time: 110 minutes
Country of origin: West Germany
Original language: German
Writer, director and producer: Werner Herzog
Cast: Bruno Schleinstein, Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira
What would happen if a child were allowed to develop in isolation, untouched by language and the forces of civilization, with only his or her instincts to shape it?
Scientists, philosophers and clergymen have whispered about the so-called “Forbidden Experiment” for centuries. But even as the latter were testing the moral health of women by drowning them, and the former were blithely vivisecting prisoners, the idea of subjecting an infant to the wilderness of their own undomesticated nature remained a taboo that not even Victorian surgeons and Catholic inquisitors dared to break.
So when in 1828 a teenage boy, struggling to walk and unable to utter more than a few senseless fragments of language, appeared on the streets of Nuremburg with only a mystifying letter to explain his provenance, it’s little surprise that his discovery provoked a sensation.
Over years the story of Kaspar Hauser has become a legend, inspiring storytellers as diverse as Hans Christian Anderson and Hermann Melville to refresh those dark speculations on the unadulterated substance of human nature.
In 1974, Werner Herzog added to its history of cultural adaptations with his multiple award-winning Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (“Every man for himself and god against them all”), a title which gives away rather more about the motives of the film than its English equivalent, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.
With Richard Nixon clinging to the throne like a Shakespearean villain, terrorist attacks in West Germany (where the film was produced) and the continuing horrors of the Vietnam War, 1974 was perhaps not a year during which people needed to have their conceptions of human nature further perplexed. Still, during moments of turmoil – like the whole of the twentieth century – art typically seeks radical explanations. What could be more radical than the idea of a human essence?
As the title suggests, there’s no conclusive meaning of Kaspar’s story. Deficient in language, having little, if any, sense of the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, possessing in short no faculties of intelligence – whatever his life may have consisted of before being brought to the world is unintelligible to us. He didn’t “experience” his life in any sense we could conceive of, except in the abstract, as of our own antenatal “existences”.
In a scene at the beginning of the film we see Kaspar’s jailor preparing him for his violent entrance to the world by teaching him to walk, suspending him like a marionette and kicking his ankles forward. The jailor draws out his hand to hold the letter declaring his existence and then leaves him.
He doesn’t quite promise, like certain other figures of dubious historicity, or like the Godot of Beckett’s play, to return. To a certain temperament, this is hysterically funny. He wheels away guiltily, twice half-looking over his shoulder, his gothic overcoat leaping wildly in the wind. Thrown into being, poor Kaspar the human is alone.
A convoy of bureaucrats, entertainers, priests, philosophers, arbiters of culture and doctors attempt to preserve their trades through Kaspar, who profoundly suffers his fate as an object of spiritual fascination. First, the bureaucrats wonder how to administrate him. Then a circus exhibits him. The clergy press him to declare primitive religious feelings. A logician tries to restrain him with reason. An effete gentleman wants to show him off at parties. And finally, inevitably, the doctors dissect him.
Yet Kaspar, who’s not undergone the normal sedimentation of identity through childhood experience, feels nothing inside him; and this vacancy somehow defies the world’s efforts to appropriate him. When he outrages an aristocratic party by announcing the grim cell in which he was confined in is better than anything he’s found outside of it, his justification is “nothing lives in me except my life!”
He encounters customs and prejudices without the eager plasticity of a child. He can learn its ways but never inherit its meaning. If the meaning of the world is only accessible to those initiated by the uncritical participation of childhood, what is its meaning, besides as a puzzling old heirloom, its origin and purpose long forgotten?
Ultimately, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser is a film which asks us to consider a plethora of questions. What is personal identity but a vaporous nebula of memories, memories of thoughts, memories of feelings, memories of identity, and memories of memories of memories?
Dominic is an English graduate, promiscuous dilettante and epistemological liability. He likes the sentimentalisation of loathsomeness, fetishized Teutonic Romanticism, the labour theory of value and Manchester United’s transcendent Bulgarian striker, Dimitar Berbatov. He abominates Certainty, curses The Wealth of Nations, and detests only mayonnaise more than asinine bathetic turns.
His favourite kinds of film are laborious, unyielding, laboriously unyielding, anything you’ve never heard of, and pornographic. At twenty-three, his achievements include A Spectroscopic Study of the Notion of Perineum in Jane Austen’s Later-Early Period, for which he won a MOBO award, and this sentence.