The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, 1974

There is an ominous, impressionistic cadence to Werner Herzog’s The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser: an obscured man in a rowboat, a woman rubbing clothes against a washboard, the sound of warbled music from a warped phonograph record. A brief, incidental foreword chronicles Kaspar Hauser’s mysterious appearance in a Nuremberg town square one Sunday morning in 1828: a young man who has spent his entire life locked in a cellar, devoid of any social or educational skills, cast onto the street. Then a static shot of an open field yielding to an occasional sweeping breeze, and a transitive question appears: “Don’t you hear that horrible screaming all around you. That screaming, men call silence?” The young man immovably stands in the middle of the square, clutching a note in his outstretched hand. Unable to decide a course of action for the displaced stranger, the police place Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S.) in a makeshift room from a converted jail cell, where physicians and scientists examine and chronicle every aspect of his life. Soon, he becomes a public spectacle as townspeople line up to catch a glimpse of him. In an attempt to profit from public interest, he is turned over to a circus ringmaster, where he becomes a carnival sideshow exhibition. He is rescued by a well-intentioned Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast), who attempts to civilize him with scientific, philosophical, and theological instruction. He is introduced in social circles, where he is adopted by the wealthy as a cause celebre. However, his fame proves to be a burden, preying victim to two assassination attempts. Note Kaspar Hauser’s “physical” regression after the first beating, where he is returned to the cellar. Herzog approaches Kaspar Hauser’s story as a portrait of alienation and the inevitable tragedy of forced conformity, trivializing the political and conspiratorial specter that has often overshadowed the enigmatic young man’s legacy. Note the use of interspersed pastoral images to punctuate Kaspar Hauser’s gradual loss of innocence, from a conversation with Professor Daumer on differentiating dreams from reality to the physical abuse of the unprovoked attacks. In the end, all attempts at civilization prove to be nothing more than a crushing of the human spirit, and Kaspar Hauser sinks into the sanctity of his bed, delusional – regressing to his primeval soul, lost in his dreams – a broken man.

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