Wednesday 3 July 2013

Mystery man: "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser"

From its opening lines of on-screen text - "Can you hear the screaming all around/That screaming that man calls silence?" - it's clear that Werner Herzog's project with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser isn't just historical extrapolation, but an attempt to overturn perceptions and prejudices, and force us to find wonder in that we might have become complacent towards - or simply never have taken the time to consider in the first place. All this plus the oft-told story of the eponymous foundling (played by the once-seen, never-forgotten Bruno S.), discovered one morning in a town square barely able to speak, having spent his childhood and adolescence chained to the floor of a barn - and thus knowing nothing of the world as we like to think we know it.

Herzog has a go at guessing where Kaspar came from - suggesting he might have been the unwanted, adoptive son of an aristocrat in a cape, trying to cut his losses - only to pursue the line that the civilisation the foundling was thrust into was every bit as cruel, constraining and crazy as his formative years. The film is entirely in thrall to its Peter Pumpkinhead-like prophet-hero, with his fresh eyes and unique take on the world: in a work very much about seeing, we watch as Kaspar attributes conscious thought to apples ("the apple hid in the grass"), compares man to tree frogs and (unknowingly) clocks society's hypocrisies - before he's deemed to have seen too much.

Appropriately enough - and like the best Herzog - you can't take your own eyes off it. If there's nothing quite comparable to the epic widescreen spectacle of Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, the director is always busy finding new elements for the viewer to marvel at: the lead actor's strikingly unschooled portrayal of Kaspar, his face every bit as much the picture of innocence as Klaus Kinski's was of derangement, his mouth giving forth some of the most alien-sounding German ever to have been uttered; the variety of avian imagery (someone needs to write the thesis "Hypnotising Chickens: Wildfowl in the Work of Werner Herzog"); the touring circus in which Kaspar, like John Merrick after him, temporarily becomes the main attraction; even just a passing shot of a monkey on horseback, or the final-reel horror of the human brain being sliced up like a roast chicken.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser returns to selected cinemas in a new print from Friday.

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