The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Werner Herzog / West Germany, 1974):
(Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle; Every Man for Himself and God Against All)

The outsider’s "terribly hard fall" into civilization, imagined by Werner Herzog as a rough-ethereal Kokoschka canvas far from the Chardin of The Wild Child. (By contrast, The Elephant Man is a gas-lit Bill Brandt gallery.) A cut from an undulating sea of grass to a soggy cellar sets up the synergy of inner and outer zones, Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S.) in his dungeon scratches at atrophied, chained legs until he’s dragged outside and left in the town square. Suddenly born fully grown after years in the dark, what’s a grunting "gallant rider" to do in 19th-century Bavaria? Curiosity becomes mockery becomes respectability as the stranger goes from oddball houseguest to centerpiece at a carnival sideshow ("The Four Riddles of the Sphere") to a scientist’s pupil and budding biographer. (Observing the trajectory are a pompous, whiskered military officer and a wizened scribe with stovepipe hat and quill pen, a mordant embodiment of refined society and a comic duo straight out of early Lubitsch.) The drive toward domestication is the drive toward death in Herzog’s haunting fable, a travesty of uplifting dramas to go with Aguirre’s travesty of swashbuckling epics. Art soothes momentarily ("The music feels strong in my heart," Kaspar says, each word like a cinderblock), but for the blunt Romanticism of the protagonist only Nature and the 8mm reveries pulsing inside his head (a procession up a misty hilltop, a caravan into the Sahara) will do. Surrounded by foppish rationalists, vicious patriarchs, unbalanced compositions and hypnotized chickens, Kaspar might be the New German Cinema itself, an inquisitive visionary simultaneously suspicious of a cultural landscape and struggling to find a place in it. (He is also an enthralling blur of performer and role, where the eyes of the remarkable Bruno S. twitch and burn in sync with those of his awestruck, tragic character.) A work somehow both doggedly nihilistic and profoundly humanistic, the greatest unofficial Frankenstein movie, an ode to the misshapen brain that can hear "the horrible screaming men call silence." Cinematography by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein. With Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira, Willy Semmelrogge, Michael Kroecher, and Hans Musäus.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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