Stories without end: "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the fold of Netflix, after my month long banishment in England, with Werner Herzog's "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser." I am rather green when it comes to Werner H., having only recently made my first acquaintance with him (as so many did) with the intriguing and finely-wrought "Grizzly Man." Little birds have told me that Herzog is a man of strong preoccupations, whose work is perhaps best seen as one long oeuvre return again and again to the same metaphysical themes. Indeed it is possible to see this tendency after my minimal exposure to him, and to do that sloppy thing I am increasingly guilty of: making a pattern of two.

Both films, for instance, take as their central concern men who feel alienated from human society, distrustful of and dissatisfied by the rewards of civilization. In "Grizzly Man" this becomes a tale of withdrawal: the environmentalist Timothy Treadwell retreats with increasing paranoia from the human world in which he was raised, into what he believes to be the harsh but honest world of the bears of Alaska, one of whom will ultimately kill and eat him. "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" follows the same archetypal path of sacrifice and martyrdom, but in some sense it pursues its interest in the protagonist who dwells on the outskirts of civilization while following an inverted trajectory. Instead of withdrawal, this becomes a tale of unsuccessful integration into society, of a conscious, chosen failure to learn the values of civilization.

"Kaspar Hauser" is a reworking (a remarkably faithful and inclusive one) of an odd piece of German history. In 1828, a young man appeared in the centre of Nurnberg, unable to walk comfortable or to speak any words apart from "I want to be a pretty rider like my father." When given pen and paper, he is able to sign his name: Kaspar Hauser. A note on his person says that he wants to join the cavalry, and while the civic authorities decide what to do with him he is kept in a tower for vagabonds and vagrants. As he learns more of the language and customs of those he lives among, he is eventually taken up by a series of intellectuals as something between a friend and an object of study. One day, he is attacked by a mysterious assailant, and though he survives this attack, he is later mortally wounded in another assault.

For Herzog, this becomes the perfect platform for an exploration of the emptiness of civilization and its unquestioned routines: Kaspar, unlike most of us, is indoctrinated into these values and behaviors while a fully self-conscious, critical adult, capable of abstract thinking that is both more direct that academic logic and too sophisticated for an unquestioning acceptance of new rules. The "intelligent men" who surround Kaspar are repeatedly reduced to sputtering defensiveness by his commonsense rejoinders to their lessons and lectures: "Kaspar," they cry, "That just isn't true!" But they are unable to provide him with any concrete proof that it is false.

Kaspar's eccentric thought processes form the most rewarding aspects of the film. His language is densely poetic, and often resonates with metaphor-- the difficulty in putting together even the simplest sentence means that he chooses words with an astute eye for how great a weight a meaning they must carry. One example (sadly paraphrased from memory): in a prescient echo of the real Timothy Treadwell, who often describes his disgust at the callous behavior of humans in "Grizzly Man," Kaspar tells his friend and tutor, "These people are as wolves to me." And, although for the most part we see only the "kindest" behavior from the Germans who surround Kaspar, we can't help but agree: like Treadwell's bears, these people may have social network, but they also have the primal drive towards self-preservation and self-aggrandizement of the wild. And Kaspar, the "wild child," seems to lack this drive entirely.

The other rich consequence of Kaspar's "uncivilized" thought processes is his tendency to think in visions, dreams, and highly symbolic images. He has odd epiphanies about distant, wild landscapes over which helpless herds of people move and toil to no valuable end, and to him these visions are clearly more pressing and more real than paltry questions about his quotidian life (even the questions of where he came from and who is attacking him). Both he and Herzog traffic in allegory (as the original German title of the film, "Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle / Every Man for Himself and God Against All," makes clear), and like most allegories, "Kaspar Hauser" uses archetypal forms to rip the film of "reality" off our everyday lives. In medieval and Renaissance allegory, this would have revealed a Platonic world of ideal forms, a landscape of salvation rather than of fallenness. When Kaspar sees a vision of people, whole swarms of Sisyphuses, dragging themselves and their lives up a neverending hill with nothing at its summit, there is no landscape except for the fallen one: the allegory falls away and leaves only emptiness. At the beginning of the film we are given a rolling field of grain and swelling music. Well trained by Hollywood, our hearts swell in response, and then we see Herzog's epigraph (taken from Lenz?), and the emptiness yawns: "Don't you hear that horrible screaming all round you? That screaming men call silence?"

Throughout the film, Kaspar tries to tell a story, and until he is on his deathbed he is dissuaded from the telling because he admits that he doesn't know the ending. Endings, his housekeeper and tutor sternly tell him, are of the most vital importance. Civilization depends on containment, so all narratives must be walled round by clear beginnings and good endings. Kaspar defies all attempts at containment. It is perhaps in the service of making his own ending as meaningful as possible that they final allow him to tell the tale after he has been mortally stabbed by the unknown assailant. The oddity of the tale, it turns out, is that it seems to be complete: it certainly has a beginning, a middle, and an end as we would conventionally imagine them, except that Kaspar doesn't believe the story to be over. So in fact we find that stories without endings are in fact made up of a series of conclusions: all our lives are, in a way, nothing but endings.

Of course, the same can be said about beginnings, but that would be a bit cloying, wouldn't it?

"The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"
dir. Werner Herzog
***1/2 (because it was in fact, more interesting to ponder than to watch, although it was extremely interesting to ponder)

One Response so far.

  1. One more note that I couldn't fit in to the main body of the review:

    One of the joys of watching a Herzog film by myself, I just discovered, was that I found myself entering into a loud and uninhibated conversation with the director (via the TV) about both his subtleties and his excesses. "Oh nice, nice, Werner" I would say sarcastically as a caged bird appears on the screen, "I would never have guessed that this was a film about civilization being equivalent to imprisonment! Especially after the ambiguity of Kaspar being locked in a tower for vagrants in the last scene! I am glad you clarified that."

    But of course I said this with affection and enthusiasm, for a have a not-too-secret fondness for the polemical use of metaphor and symbol. I am sure my TV understands the friendly nature of my sarcasm.

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