Mini-Review: Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974) Biopic

Kaspar Hauser (Bruno S.) has lived imprisoned in a cellar for all his life. He can’t walk, he can’t talk and he has had no contact with any human being. One day whoever is doing this to him decides to free him. He teaches Kaspar how to write his name, a few words and how to stand on his feet. The people of Nuremberg (Germany) find him standing in the middle of their town. A family decides to take him in. They try to teach him everything they think is important, but Kaspar’s existence remains a mystery. 

Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (original title: Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle or “everyone for himself and God against everyone”) is based on the real life of a man by the same name who lived in Germany during the 19th century. While the film is a biopic, it’s also very much a Werner Herzog film. In fact if I didn’t know the story was true, I wouldn’t have noticed anything different. Even though Kaspar Hauser really existed Herzog doesn’t treat him any different than his fictional characters. He doesn’t glorify the character, but he also doesn’t make him any less crazy than he usually would.

What Herzog is interested in is trying to figure out how a man like Hauser would think. Does he have a concept of God? What does he dream of? Is he happier now that he was released? Many of the answers to those questions are surely his own interpretation, because even though Hauser’s case is well documented he remains an enigma. I was surprised by how many familiar faces there were in this film. A lot of great German and Austrian actors. Bruno S., who was primarily a musician, was discovered by Herzog in 1970 when he made a documentary on him called Bruno der Schwarze – Es blies ein Jäger wohl in sein Horn.

S. went on to work with Herzog on his 1977 masterpiece Stroszek. Another actor is Walter Ladengast, who went on to appear in Nosferatu the VamypreClemens Scheitz, who only made five films (four of which with Herzog) is hilarious in this one. There’s even a cameo by Helmut Döring as Little King. He is one of the dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small. You also have Brigitte Mira (Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), who’s a great actress and so many others. I’m usually not a fan of biopics in general, because they tend to be overly serious and only interested in checking a list of facts, but here you also have a genuinely good film.

The music is great, of course there’s a lot of liturgical music, but also some great classical music and of course performances by Bruno S. The film was shot by Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein who went on to collaborate with him on a couple other pictures. He gives the film a very lush and delicate look. I’m normally not a fan of the 70s aesthetic, mostly because of the film stock quality, but I found this particular picture to be perfectly pristine. Of course you can’t have a good Werner Herzog film without his cynical irony and sense of humor, his commentary on the purposelessness of existence and lots of stupid animals.

7.5 out of 10

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