Saturday, November 30, 2013

THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER (1974) - Werner Herzog


Herzog's take on the famous German foundling who materialized on the streets of Nuremberg with little backstory other than a mysterious note, a few nonsensical phrases and the mental/emotional void that comes from being raised in a dark, windowless cell from birth. He hews pretty closely to the recorded facts of Kaspar's case--his appearance, his immediate sideshow status, his emergence into "civilized" society, his unexplained murder. There's only a bit of conjecture as to what Kaspar's pre-society cell life might have been like (children's toys and stale bread, mostly). This being Herzog though, it's no run of the mill biopic. The approach is a more deadpan Elephant Man. But where Merrick's dilemma was mostly physical, Hauser's is purely existential.

Casting non-actor Bruno S., a street performer and asylum survivor himself, was Herzog's smartest move. Bruno's widened eyes, long pauses and deliberate line readings work beautifully as a window into Kaspar's undernourished psyche. He is the anti-Kinski, all interiors, whereas Klaus (Herzog's later muse) was pure megalomaniacal bluster. Watching Bruno as Kaspar hold a baby for the first time, walk a kitten (see above), then later, once he enters society, argue for the existence of "intelligent apples" is like watching one of those ape-to-man evolution slide shows. Except the first frame and the last frame are question marks, blank slates. Where did Kaspar come from? Who murdered him and why?

Herzog tackles these big questions and Kaspar's ellipsis-strewn biography without too much mystical fuss, giving all the folklore a refreshing matter of fact spin. In case you're worried, Werner's not playing it entirely straight. Yes, there is a hypnotized chicken. Yes, there is a midget (Helmut Doring from Even Dwarves Started Small). And, yes, there is a shot of a monkey sitting atop a horse with a camel in the background.

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