The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

University of Chicago has a student run movie club (Doc) which has been running continuously since before the war (second). In my years living in Hyde park in Chicago, I have found Doc films to be a particularly enticing aspect of the neighborhood. For 40 bucks, I can watch excellently curated movies from across the world every evening if I wanted. One series this quarter in Doc is Werner Herzog movies and that’s a special treat to me, as I have long maintained that one needs to watch Herzog movies before they die, almost as a pilgrimage. His movies and documentaries are, in part, studies in the assorted curiosities of the world by a man who possesses an exquisite sensibility for them. They are also a mirror to one’s own consciousness - a measure by which one can gauge the depths of one’s own sensitivities and the timbre of the resonances of one’s own soul.

The movie today was The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - the story of a German teen who was found abandoned in a town square in Germany in 1828 and who, presumably, lived all of his early years in a cellar with no access to other people or to the outside environment. After reading a little more about Kaspar Hauser, it appears to me that this origin story is not necessarily true and that Kaspar Hauser may have fabricated it all. However, that’s beside the point and irrelevant to the movie. What is important here is that in Herzog’s tale (and his imagination), there was a boy who, owing to the very unusual and isolated circumstances of his early childhood, develops into an adult with an extremely peculiar and largely stunted relationship with the world around him. This fact of course is at the very basic level of understanding and empathizing with the story since the archetype of wolf-kids is well established in the social consciousness. From this perspective, it is logical that the boy finds alienation in society and essentially longs for his life in the cellar, that there is both pathos and contempt to be found in how society treats him as an object to gawk over. There are two threads in this movie which, to me, rose above the mean of obvious logicality (as brilliantly as that logicality may have been executed by Herzog).

First, there is an undercurrent of contempt towards the professional classes which I found fascinating. There is a scene where Kaspar is being quizzed by a mathematician/logician. He asks a convoluted logical question and upon not getting a solution from Kaspar, presents his own very complicated solution. On being subsequently confronted by a very simple solution to the problem by Kaspar, the mathematician refuses to accept its validity saying instead ‘we, as mathematicians and logicians, are not interested in understanding but only in reasoning.’ The doctors and detectives in the town similarly are exclusively concerned with tabulating, it seems, the surface patterns of the life of Kaspar, both before and after his death. In a very deep sense then the movie portrays the well adjusted common man as one who is captured in the swirling vortex of his own local minima, where a lifetime spent successfully in social regulations has left him unable to look below the surface - in a poetic sense unable to compute and process the higher order terms of existence. The movie does not portray Kaspar as having some particularly special insights into life either but it does show intriguing examples of creativity emerging in a system which has not yet managed to come into coherence with its surroundings. There is a point where Kaspar argues that a small room is in fact bigger than the tower inside which it is situated. The argument is not correct but it is refreshing and it is also interesting to think how “wrong arguments” such as his can instead be viewed as creative and how a similar kind of creativity is seen in kids which is scrubbed soon enough from them through the relentless corrective feedback from society.

The second point that I thought was particularly interesting in the movie was the treatment of Kaspar’s dreams and how his inner world is sketched out. Since the mental state of a person like Kaspar is even more inaccessible (even to a genius like Herzog) than the mental state of a well adjusted person, it is only treated in a generalized way with a lot of in built vagueness. Therefore, it has to be the case the its treatments have a lot more of Herzog’s sensibilities and artistry than the other parts of the movie. The last scene involves Kaspar telling a story that he has seen in his dreams and the peculiarity of the story is that he only knows its beginning. It is extremely poignant that in life he was not allowed to tell that story since stories with only beginning are not interesting, but in death he tells it. The story is indeed incomplete and even nonsensical but it is powerful enough to Kaspar to bring despair to him in life (since he could not tell it) and bring release to him in death. It is not important what the story is perhaps. Perhaps it is just a placeholder for all that Kaspar wanted to tell the world, all that he was not able to communicate, all the times when the world did not care to listen, and all the hurricanes of silent internal turmoil that such a life as Kaspar’s might have to endure because of it. Commonplace artifacts such as nonsensical stories can assume deep significance in such circumstances, with powers enough to deliver freedom from the mortal coils.

2 observations on “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
  1. Crazy Cat Lady

    I check this blog periodically and was saddened to see no posts in 2023. No comment on a movie review as I’ve still not seen one since 1999 ☺️


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