Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Werner Herzog | Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser)

a very hard fall
by Douglas Messerli

Werner Herzog (screenplay, based, in part, on the novel by Jakob Wassermann), Werner Herzog (director) Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle ( The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) / 1974

Werner Herzog's 1974 masterpiece, takes its German title from the Brazilian fiction Macunaima (a work also about a innocent faced by a confusing society), in English, "Every man for himself and God against all." I suppose such a dim view of God, announced in the title, would doom a film in the US, but it does suggest the dark view of society and religion that Kaspar has developed in his brief time in civilization, and suggests, particularly in his inability to accept the standard societal beliefs, what will be his own fate.

     The story, told many times by many artists, is still a haunting one. On the morning of May 26, 1828, citizens of Nuremberg woke to discover a teenage boy standing in the town square, a letter in one hand, and a bible in the other. Upon questioning him, they discovered he could say only that he wanted to be a "gallant rider" as his father was. He also knew the word "horse."

     The letter he held was addressed to the captain of the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment, Captain von Wessenig, who was away for the day. When he returned that evening, he opened the letter in front of others, reading, from a poorly written epistle with many misspellings, that the boy was given over to the writer's custody in 1812, and that the child had never been permitted to take a step out of his house. Moreover, another note revealed that the boy's name was Kasper Hauser, and when presented with a sheet of paper and pencil, Kasper was able to write out his name.

     That is almost all of the narrative—except for a brief scene in which we witness the man taking Kasper from his cave-like prison and teaching him to walk—that Herzog provides. For the rest of his brilliant film centers not upon plot as much as it does on dissociated events that reveal Hauser's growing comprehension of the societal world about him, and his sometimes obstinate refusal to be completely assimilated within it. And it is these gaps between what was is expected of him and what he cannot grasp that makes this film so poignant, so human in its scope.

     At first, kept in the Vestner Gate Tower under the care of a jailer, Andreas Hiltel, we observe Kasper gradually learning about the world as he envisions it from the small slit of a window in the wall. Later, he cannot reconcile the inner space in which he has lived with the outer imposing structure.

     Among his visitors are the jailer's children, who gradually begin to teach him language. Hauser is a quick learner and before long is beginning to repeat sentences and to comprehend the world through language, an often painful and even torturous experience.

     Early in the film, when he does not respond to the dangers of a sword, the captain orders a candle to be brought before him. Again Hauser does not perceive the flame as representing any danger, until he puts his hand into the heart of the fire, quickly drawing it away in pain. Tears stream from his eyes.

     Herzog turns this metaphoric scene into an even more emotionally powerful statement when, soon after, Hauser is seen playing with the Hiltel's baby's hand. The mother, observing him in his wonderment, takes up the baby and suggests he hold it. He does so, but immediately tears again stream down his cheeks as he nearly wails out "Mother, I am so far away from everything."

     In a later heart-wrenching scene, Professor Daumer takes him to hear a local pianist—who himself has lost his wife and children in a fire—who plays strangely original chords, the first music, apparently, that Hauser has ever experienced. The boy is clearly overwhelmed by the experience.

                     Professor Daumer: Kasper, what's wrong? Are you feeling unwell?
                     Kaspar Hauser: It feels strong in my hear... The music feels strong in
                         my heart....I feel so unexpectedly old.

     In creating these moving scenes, Herzog develops a strong rapport between his audience and Hauser (charmingly and, often, somewhat alarmingly played by Bruno S., a street musician who himself had been institutionalized throughout much of his life). This in turn, helps us to comprehend just how painful it must have been for Hauser when he is paraded in front of the public as a local circus specimen. Standing just has he first appeared at the city center, the ringmaster tells the audience Hauser's story. In his stoic stance, it first appears that Hauser does not mind the attention, but soon after we see him racing away from the tent with other performers, all of them determined to escape. One by one, they are gathered up. As Hauser summarizes it, "the people are wolves." Only he is given a better life, now put into the care of the school master, Daumer (Walter Ladengast).

     Daumer is a gentle soul, who gradually teaches Hauser the finer points of logic and even encourages him to play the piano (quite badly if Herzog is to be believed). But here too, we begin to perceive just how smugly closed to new ideas this German society is, as he is berated by churchmen for having no religious faith, and scolded by a philosopher for having no logic.

     Told the tale of two societies, one a society of liars, the other of truth-tellers, Hauser is asked how he would come to know the difference between the two. The answer lays in the requirement of a double-negative in the question. But Hauser insists he has another question to determine to which village a stranger belongs: "I would has him if he is a tree frog," he proudly declares. The originality of that concept, that the inveterate lair might answer that he was, in fact, a tree frog, is lost on the philosopher, who scolds Hauser for his answer. Tree-frogs have nothing to do with his logic.

     Observing the actions of the women around him, he asks the servant woman Katy, "What are women good for? ...Can you tell me that, Katy? Women are not good for anything but sitting still!" All they do, he continues, is sew and cook. The obvious inequality of the roles between women and men in this society can only be seen, apparently, by a complete outsider such as Hauser.

     Hauser's own well-being, alas, is dependent upon another kind of enslavement, that of being taken up by believers or attacked by those who see his as a fraud. The foppish Lord Stanhope (Michael Kroecher) is only too ready to declare Hauser his protégé, and Kasper seems eager for his attention, with hopes that Stanhope will take him to England. Put on display at a grand party, however, Hauser again reveals his stubborn pride, refusing to bow and perform before the crowd. The evening ends with the metaphoric shredding of his own clothes, as if to declare that he is a thing of flesh and blood, not a puppet to be put through its dance.

In the real Kasper Hauser tale, it appears that most of the people Hauser met begin to see him as one of the society of liars. Even the two attempts on his life, one ending in death, are by some attributed to his own hand. Herzog, however, is less interested in the "truth"—even if it might be discovered—than in the dilemma with which the hero, whether a victim or a self-created fraud, was faced. He could see into the society about him, but could not entirely enter. Hauser is the eternal outsider, able to occasionally remind us of ourselves, but always making it clear somehow that he was different, perhaps "better" in his fresh perceptions of the world, even a more gallant rider that his father might have been. Certainly he was brave, attentive, even courteous—all definitions of a "gallant"—to a world that did not always demonstrate those traits. Such a being is innately troubling, dangerous surely, as his murderer perceived him to be. For Hauser, reality contained little of the sentimentality apparent in all those around him. As he summarizes his life: "It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall."

 Los Angeles, November 1, 2011

 The central actor of The Enigma of Kasper Hauser and of Herzog's later film Stroszek was Bruno S. (Bruno Schleinstein), who died on August 11, 2010.

    Schleinstein was severely beaten by his prostitute mother, losing much of his hearing for years, and, at age three, was incarcerated in a mental institution. There, he became one of the children upon whom the Nazis experimented. For 23 some years, Schleinstein was kept in such institutions, although there is no real evidence that he was insane. The treatment he endured, however, inevitably lead to social and psychological problems later in his life, when he was arrested several times by the police, since he often broke into cars just for a warm place to sleep.

     Upon his release from various institutions and jails, Schleinstein, a self-taught musician, played piano, accordion, glockenspiel and handbells in German gardens, performing mostly 18th and 19th century ballads, while financially sustaining himself working in a factory as a forklift driver.

     Herzog first spotted Bruno in a documentary, Bruno der Schwarz—Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn in 1970. Herzog immediately proclaimed he wanted to work with the singer in a movie, and, although Bruno had had no acting experience, he cast him in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser in 1974. In the later film, Stroszek, the character's biography was based, in part, on events from Schleinstein's own life, and his apartment was used as Stroszek's home.

     Like Kasper Hauser, Schleinstein was distrustful of Herzog's direction and suspicious of the camera, forcing the director to listen to his rants and shouting sometimes for hours before they could proceed. Yet Herzog described Bruno as "the unknown soldier of cinema," and, upon his death eulogized: "In all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him."

    After these films, Schleinstein turned to painting and music, some of his artwork being shown at the 2004 Outsider Art Fair in New York City. He also appeared in the film by Jan Ralske, Vergangen, vergessen, vorüber (Long-lost and Lay Me Down) of 1993. That director also made a short documentary about Bruno S. entitled Seeing Things. For his part, Schleinstein insisted of himself that "everybody threw him away."

    Bruno S. died at the age of 78 of heart problems.    

     Los Angeles, November 2, 2011


1 comment:

  1. I knew Bruno S. had spent time incarcerated but imagined a month or so in the kind of establishment one encounters in Ibsen or Thomas Mann, similar to Robert Walker's story (strangers on a train). His childhood sufferings and consequent wanderings in institutional exile shed light on the price he paid for the intense humanity with which he played Kaspar. The biographical detail lends further poignancy to this wonderful film which I've watched and shared with others over the last 30 years. Herzog can imbue the wanderings of a penguin with a Heideggerian gravitas, but this was his finest film, his greatest achievement. thank you