What would it be like to experience the world for the first time as an adult, having spent your entire life locked up in a dark chamber?  Think of everything you’ve seen today, everything you’ve smelled, everything you’re heard.  What if you were experiencing all of it at the age that you are now, for the first time?  Based on the life of man in Nuremberg who once experienced this exact introduction to the real world, here is a film that makes you think.  And for those who question whether movies can make you think while also entertain you, I present to you The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.

The Players:

  • Director:  Werner Herzog
  • Writer: Werner Herzog, Jakob Wasserman
  • Cast: Bruno Schleinstein, Walter Ladengast, Brigitte Mira, and Willy Semmelrogge


The premise of this film is very much like a fable.  One Sunday morning in 1828, a ragged boy is found abandoned in the town of Nuremberg.  He’s never seen another house, tree or human being before.  According to history, Kaspar was 17 when he was released into the world, but in the film, Kaspar (Bruno Schleinstein) appears closer to middle-age.  Kaspar becomes an instant source of intrigue and curiosity among the townsfolk as they wonder about his origins.  Is he the illegitimate son of Napoleon?  An abandoned love child?  There is debate about whether he’ll be a drain on the community or whether he could contribute somehow.  Part of the charm in a film like this are the scenes where local authorities try to figure out his condition while also trying to assess what he knows.  They discover he has no concept of danger, as evidenced by his lack of response to fire and fencing.  He eventually cries, as one would expect, after holding his hand over fire, but also, interestingly enough, after holding a baby.

Kaspar is adopted by a nice couple and is taught to read and write.  He is a natural philosopher, and his new-found language skills, though still lacking, allow him to articulate his inquisitiveness.  He wonders what women are good for, and questions why they are only allowed to knit and cook.  He comes off like a social observer from another world, it puts you in state of contemplation about the customs of our society. He is also taught to play the piano, and as Ebert points out in his review, in real life, Kaspar also learned to play the accordion and the glockenspiel.  His musical abilities are interesting because upon first being introduced to it, he later expresses that music was too heavy for his heart.  Perhaps since Schleinstein never had formal training, his acting lends a lot to the believability to his actions, and Werner Herzog – who views his film as instinctual – lends a hand to directing Kaspar’s instincts just as they would likely occur in real life.  The acting here is superb, and it has to be, in order to pull off a story like this.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

It is interesting to learn that Bruno Schleinstein was the son of a prostitute, and that he spent the first 23 years of his life locked up in mental asylums.  Despite not being an trained actor, Bruno “embodies the essence of this character,” and as you mention, Herzog “studies that essence with a fascinated intensity”.  As you point out, “so many of Herzog’s protagonists, real and fictional, are so intensely themselves that they carry his purpose unthinkingly”.  The background you provide on Herzog and some of his collaborators is reason enough to read it, as it provides insight into the treasure that Herzog represents.  Also, while you appropriately bring up Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970), a film about a boy who emerged from the forest possibly having been raised by animals, I was personally also reminded of John Sayles’ Brother from Another Planet (1984), a film about an extra-terrestrial with the outwardly appearance of a human being who lands and observes life in New York City.  I enjoyed reading that Kaspar reminds you of W. G. Sebold’s remark that “men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension,” and it is also interesting to note that “the last thing Herzog is interested in is ‘solving’ this lonely man’s mystery. It is the mystery that attracts him”.  Aside from being a fascinating and unique historical account, the beauty of this film lies in the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the observation of innocence.  Once innocence is gone, it is gone forever, and this is what makes it sacred.  As we normally experience innocence in relation to children, Kaspar Hauser is a rare case in which we are able to witness innocence not only through the mind of an adult, but one who can engage the world, reflect on it, and articulate it back to us.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GREAT

Do you like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  The Double Life of Veronique

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser this week, he now has 274 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.