David L. Overbey

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1297

Although [Every Man for Himself and God Against All] begins with an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute asking 'Is love the answer?' and ends in the same aria with 'Yes, love is the answer,' this musical parenthesis cannot be denied certain irony. 'Love' is, after all, the non-ironic solution given in several films which at first glance seem to parallel Every Man for Himself. In both Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage and Penn's The Miracle Worker, it is assumed that 'love and patience' will bring salvation to the deprived children. Perhaps it is because they are children, however, that their salvation through education is never questioned. Both films end with the sentimental device of an educational 'break-through'—as if learning to say 'lait' and 'wawa' were enough. In neither film is the society, or the reality of that society as embodied in its language, ever really questioned.

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It can hardly be an accident that, while both the wild child and Helen Keller learn to ask first for what is contained in their cups, Herzog's Kaspar learns the word 'empty' first when his cup is drained. This is not to suggest that it would have been better to leave Truffaut's boy in the darkness of his forest or Helen in her blindness, any more than Herzog would suggest that Kaspar's narrow cell was superior to the world he found outside; but simply that there is more to these tales than the assimilation of the beliefs of a middle-class society which leaves scant room for individual visions of reality, or for human dignity that has little to do with table manners. As Herzog's description of the story suggests, it is the very act of conformity which deforms the soul….

A series of obligatory scenes condensing several years of Kaspar's education mark the consecutive stages of his comprehension that the people around him are not the inhabitants of Paradise. At first he is taught language, although he never speaks with the fluency which would indicate his full acceptance of the medium by which a hostile reality is described. These early scenes are shared either by Kaspar and children or by Kaspar and birds, beings with whom Kaspar shares his uncorrupted vision. Later, Kaspar is 'taught' the way the world is seen to work by his keepers and hosts. Examined by several ministers who insist that he confess to having had a 'natural' idea of God while in his cellar, he, in his honesty, cannot. While filled with righteous anger, the men of God 'charitably' allow him to repeat a prayer with them; if he cannot share their reality, he can at least learn the ritual which sustains it. During his examination by a professor of logic, Kaspar works out a problem in his own way, but the solution is rejected because 'it is not a logical answer.'

If religion and abstract logic are thus shown as empty systems in which the answers precede the questions, there remains that reasoned order of the world which begins with the 'objective' observation of phenomena. The key sequence, then, to Kaspar's 'education' comes with the lessons in natural history in which his benefactor Daumer uses apples for illustration. At the end of a long session, Kaspar suggests that they stop for the day 'as the apples must be tired.' Laughing at this 'misconception', Daumer explains that apples have no consciousness, and to prove his point tells Kaspar he will roll an apple on the ground and that it will stop when it hits the boot of his friend. Instead, the apple bumps over an uneven place in the path and jumps over the boot. 'Smart apple!' exclaims Kaspar. One is amused, of course…. But is one amused at Kaspar's naïve inability to grasp our usual division of the world into subject and object, or at Daumer (and ourselves?) in his inability to grasp Kaspar's reality?

Here one is confronted with Herzog's method: a cool, neutral observation of characters and events. If Truffaut and Penn insist on our identification with the teachers, and therefore their assumptions about the world, Herzog stays aloof from such an easy response to such a complex situation. (p. 74)

We must remember Herzog's own statement ('I am not a philosopher. I have no system to illustrate'), and we must take it seriously. At only one point does Herzog move away from observation to the self-conscious creation of an abstract construct within the film, and it is this sequence which is at once the film's weakest and the one which sheds most light on Herzog's usual method. Kaspar is made to 'earn his keep' by appearing in a sideshow with other 'freaks' for the edifying amusement of the townsfolk. As Kaspar has already 'progressed' beyond the catatonic state in which the townsfolk first saw him, he 'acts' for his employers by dressing in his earlier costume and reverting to his earlier state. In so far as Kaspar is later unable to 'act' successfully the role of educated ape for his adoptive father, Lord Stanhope, and his aristocratic friends at a coming-out party at which Kaspar is the debutant, his appearance at the country fair is re-enacted to make an abstract point about the exploitation of innocence.

That the scene is in the film to illustrate an abstract concept is further underscored by the presence of 'The Little King', the dwarf … from Even Dwarfs Started Small, and an actor playing Hombrecito, the Indian flute player from Aguirre, two characters of dignity who share the freakshow spotlight with Kaspar. The scene makes its abstract point, as well as conceptually summarising Herzog's earlier work. This philosophical interlude, however, breaks up into a mad chase across the surrounding country as the 'freaks' attempt to escape, and we are once again in the world of sensation and Herzog's neutrally observed reality. Although the scene is in no way bad, or destructive of the ultimate reality which Herzog has created, it does momentarily run against the texture of the film and jolt the viewer to another level.

The beckoning landscape into which the sideshow attractions seek to escape is of prime importance to Herzog, who maintains that his first conception of a film is in terms of seeing a landscape…. The town of Dinkelsbühl, with its surrounding farmlands, fields and small woods in midsummer, is not only appropriate historically …, but exactly appropriate in emotional and intellectual atmosphere. The farms, like the rooms of the town's houses, are modestly rich and smugly well-ordered, allowing the townsfolk and farmers to sink comfortably into their unquestioned notions of the way the world should work. At the same time the glittering, ordered space, as seen from nearby hilltops, allows one to partake of some of the same sensations as Kaspar when he is first taken from his cell. Even the rippling fields of grey-green grass and the streams shadowed by overhanging trees with which the film begins prompt an ambivalent response that combines the possibilities of well-being with an undertone of the sinister. In this landscape a man might live fully, or might well be thrown from paradise by an inability to adapt to its dappled patterns. (pp. 74-5)

[The] glowing centre of the film is Bruno S as Kaspar…. Herzog has been able to tap Bruno's private world to nourish the inner life and exterior manner of Kaspar. His presence in the film gives unshakeable strength to the director's belief that, history aside, the story of Kaspar does not have to end in the death of spontaneity, and that in spite of all, the human spirit can not only endure but triumph. (p. 75)

David L. Overbey, "Every Man for Himself," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1975 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 44, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 73-5.

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