There is no more entertaining than Werner Herzog’s documentary about his madcap relationship with Klaus Kinski, the dangerously eccentric actor who appeared for him so notably as the conquistador in the 1972 film Aguirre, Wrath of God. But in Herzog’s case truth is often stranger than fiction.
Perhaps the most famous of his romantic allegories is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – the story, based on truth, of a foundling who had been kept apart from all human contact before being left one day in 1828 in the middle of Nuremberg city square. He had no language but a prayer book had been placed in one hand and a letter addressed to the local regimental riding master in the other. Given shelter and taught to speak, he hardly had a better life. Several attempts were made to kill him and he was finally mortally injured by a stab wound in the chest five years later. His origins were never discovered and the hostility towards him never explained.
There have been many films about humans being brought up in the wild, from Tarzan to Jungle Boy, but I’ve only seen two convincing examples. They are Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage and Kaspar Hauser. In the Truffaut film about the wild child of Aveyron French rationalism holds sway. A good and patient teacher can save the wild child from himself. In Herzog’s film, it is German romanticism, with its respect for the incalculable mysteries of life and its deep suspicion of the “civilised” world.
Kaspar’s release from the confines of his underground prison allows him to see for the first time the beauties of the natural universe. But society’s attempt to tame him shows that man, not nature, is the trouble. A sequence shows us a painterly cornfield billowing in the wind, with the music of Olando di Lasso on the sound-track. Superimposed is a quotation from Lenz, the tale of another tragic figure. “But can you not hear the dreadful screaming all around that people usually call silence?” The implication is that Kaspar somehow can. Clearly Herzog believes there is something in Kaspar that should not be destroyed by a society that wishes to civilise or classify him, or to use him as a freak or a human pet. In this he is aided by an astonishing performance, if performance it is, by Bruno S, an orphan street singer with no previous acting record who seems to live the part, almost through experience.
If the film appears more self-conscious than Truffaut’s, it also strives for a more haunting metaphysical quality. Kaspar has flickering visions of Sahara nomads, pilgrims in the mist near Croagh Patrick in Ireland and the windswept Caucasus landscape. And Tamino’s aria Is This Feeling Love? from The Magic Flute is used to emphasise the point.
Some consider Herzog a mountebank who exploits marginals like Bruno S. Some call him a genuine visionary. He is probably a bit of both. He once claimed to have walked 500 miles from Munich to see Lotte Eisner, the film historian, when she fell ill in Paris. But he also went there to supervise the subtitling of one of his films before presenting it at Cannes. Besides, Eisner once said to me: “Nonsense. I met him off the train.” Whatever, Kaspar Hauser is one of the most fascinating of films. At his best, Herzog is like no other film-maker I know.