Saturday, 31 March 2012

Werner Herzog's Enigma

I've suddenly got into watching films on DVD or, to be more precise, watching Werner Herzog films on DVD. I got given a box set of five for my birthday recently.

I saw The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser at least thirty years ago, when I lived in London. I remember leaving the cinema thinking it was the best film I had ever seen. No film has made such a profound impression on me before or since. All I could really remember after all these years was the emotional effect it had on me - and the unforgettable shots of the wind blowing across a field of rye. They come quite close to the beginning and I can vividly remember the sense of wonder I felt at the time.

Seeing it again after so long, I was curious to see if I still felt the same way about it. I do. While doubting the validity of such lists, I can understand why so many people put it on their lists of "the best films ever made".

For those who have never heard of him, Kaspar Hauser was a young man who turned up out of the blue in the streets of Nuremberg in 1828, carrying a strange letter of introduction. His ability to talk seemed limited. He was both an enigmatic and a contraversial figure. He was taken in and cared for and, when his speech developed he told how he had spent his whole life in a cell and, prior to his release, had had no contact with other human beings. He became a celebrity and there were many theories as to his origins. They ranged from the idea that he was the hereditary Prince of Baden who was supposed to have died in infancy (recently discounted by DNA evidence), to that he was a fantasist with a personality disorder who had made up the whole story.

In the film, Hauser is played by Bruno Schleinstein, a Berlin street musician and artist spotted by Werner Herzog while searching for an actor to play the part.  Uncannily, it turned out that Bruno S  (as he preferred to be known in film credits) had had a similar life to Hauser (as told by Hauser) in many respects. His mother, a prostitute, had beaten him when he was very small and he'd spent his childhood and youth in mental institutions. This clip of Bruno S is from another excellent Herzog film, Stroszek, written specifically for him:

Translation in lieu of subtitles:
Ladies and Gentlemen, Bruno will now play something on his Glockenspiel because Bruno now has Eva at home.
"Sabine was a young lady, pious and virtuous was she. She was a good servant to her master and ever so faithful she was too. (until a certain day...) Then came from Treuenbrietzen a young man who was passing through. (false hopes...) He wanted so to love Sabine and was a cobbler boy. (a worshipper, a proletarian. And now comes hardship...) His money he had drunk away with Schnaps and also with beer. (cheers! cheers! cheers!) He came running to Sabine and wanted some more from her. (he went like this!) she couldn't give him any.. cos none was to hand.. so he went to her master's goods and stole 6 silver spoons.. (stuck it all into his sack -- before this he'd only kick her rear) but before 18 weeks passed, the deed came to light.. with ravings and shameful words they drove Sabine out of the house.."
Going back to Kaspar Hauser and the original story, over the years a whole industry grew up around it. I've not read any of the many books written on the subject: I've only seen Herzog's film and read what I could about Hauser on Wikipedia (this is well worth reading, although I won't retell it all here). However, one cannot help but speculate. For my money, Kaspar Hauser probably exaggerated the story of his incarceration. However, I suspect it would be unfair to brand him a con-artist. The truth, I suspect, was that he had a personality disorder which rendered him unemployable and demanded a great deal of care attention from his family. His family probably abused him and kept him in appaling conditions. There was a row, as a result of which he was thrown out - or taken a long distance to a place he didn't know and dumped. He then had to rely on his own ingenuity to survive. If that involved exaggeration and appealing to the then-current Romantic zeitgeist, then who can blame him? If this is true then both men, Schleinstein and Hauser, had the task of playing the part of Kaspar Hauser. If the original Hauser played it better than Bruno S, then he was a great actor indeed.

Set on a Texan prison's Death Row, Werner Herzog's latest film, Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life was released yesterday on Friday, 30 March.


Jessica Maybury said...

happy easter.

Dominic Rivron said...

Wow! Thank you so much for that! I've been over and had a listen. Wonderful. Thank you!

Get Off My Lawn! said...

The best movies are always odd ones. I always find some comfort from knowing movies like this can have profound impact without a bajillion dollars spent on pyrotechnics and CGI.

The Solitary Walker said...

Strangely enough —and we may have talked about this before, Dominic — this film made a huge impression on me as well the first time I came across it. I saw it in German on a big screen in Frankfurt — probably in 1974 or thereabouts. The music soundtrack is haunting and superb and, like you, I never forgot that opening sequence of the wind over the cornfield (accompanied by Albinoni, I seem to remember.) Herzog was on the radio programme 'Start the Week' on Monday, BTW — don't know if you heard it?

I've recently joined an Internet film library and lots of Herzog, Bergman and Tarkovsky films are high on my list.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Maybe I should borrow this from you one day - althoughnot sure it sounds my kind of film.

Gwil W said...

I saw Herzog at Venice Film Festival a few years ago. I can't remember the film but I remember he got a standing ovation.

At the flicks last night to see 'The Artist', a very good film as it turned out.

Titus said...

Haven't seen it Dominic, but you make me want to.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for all these comments, everyone. Yes, I did catch Herzog on Radio 4's Start the Week. It was a great listen. It's still on BBC iPlayer:

Rachel Fenton said...

I want to watch it now.

I don't know as I have a favourite film but there are moments of cinematography, as you described the wind through the grass (bit of Yeats there), that have stayed with me very strongly.

Landar said...

I also saw this 32 years ago in London. A little cinema in Soho. Also 'Meetings with Remarkable Men' in the same place, I think. I also read the book by Jakob Wasserman - perhaps you did too? Hauser was some sort of phenomenon or I don't think he'd be remembered today.

Jenny Woolf said...

I've heard of the film and I've heard of Kaspar Hauser but I've never seen the film. I think I really must, having read your post.

Jenny Woolf said...

I've heard of the film and I've heard of Kaspar Hauser but I've never seen the film. I think I really must, having read your post.

GOAT said...

I studied New German Cinema as part of my degree. That was the first and so far only time I've seen 'Enigma' - must rectify that soon. I don't recall the cornfield scene but do remember shots of the protagonist sitting on a straw-covered floor.

I love the films I've seen of his too. Remember also (vaguely) the one about the skier. More recently, 'Grizzly Man' also featured shots of plants blowing in the wind - weirdly, captured by Herzog from the video footage of the deceased eponymous character. Very beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

You probably know he's also done the odd long-distance walk: