Jan-Christopher Horak

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2506

Herzog's images are reflections of his inner landscapes. Like those Expressionist filmmakers whose legacy he has inherited, he is possessed by dreams so powerful, they can only be exorcised through cinematic creation. The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, Or Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Herzog's mysterious film of a nineteenth-century wild child, can then be seen as a meditation on its subject through a conscious awareness of the classic German film of the Weimar Republic…. (p. 223)

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[The] sense of the physicality of nature, of its material reality, and of man's position within it, yet apart from it, seems central to Herzog's personal universe. In previous films such as Signs of Life, or Aguirre, the landscape is a dangerous force, threatening by the very nature of its cosmic indifference to man. In Kaspar Hauser, and even more so in Heart of Glass …, the landscape exudes an aura of warmth and tranquility. With Heart of Glass this feeling almost takes on mystical aspects, when an imprisoned soothsayer, cut off from the landscape that is his meditational life blood, is unable to see his visions. Yet to mistake Herzog for a transcendentalist would be to infer a spirituality Kaspar Hauser in no way implies. (p. 226)

Kaspar's physical connection with nature is … continually reinforced, e.g. when he feeds various blackbirds, or when Kaspar rows on a quiet lake. The images always have a great depth of field to them, connecting Kaspar to the natural environment. Later he writes his name in the soil by planting watercress and cries bitterly when an unknown culprit destroys his creation…. Kaspar's tragedy is that he remains a solitary among men, even after he is released from the black nothingness of his cell. Tieck's "monsterous emptiness and horrid chaos" … has an especially depressing effect on Kaspar, whose consciousness now awakened realizes "the hole was better than outside." Kaspar talks of "birth being a painful blow." At one point, shortly after he learns to talk, he cries while holding a baby, and says to the farmer's wife, who has become his foster mother: "Mother, I feel so very distant."

I am reminded of Camus' dictum in The Myth of Sisyphus, that the absurd is first perceived emotionally. Clearly, the isolation Kaspar feels is a result of his intuitive grasp of the irrationality of existence. At one point Kaspar runs out of a church service, saying he can't stand the terrible screaming of the congregation whose hymn to God can still be heard. Camus, too, talks of man's fundamental isolation from other human beings and his perception of the inhuman essence people often exude. Kaspar says "humans are like wolves." These ideas, then, seem to connect very directly to Kaspar's perceptions. His dream of the masses wandering up the mountain of death seems in fact to be a direct translation into visual terms of Camus' Sisyphus Myth.

Moreover, Herzog's heroes from the insane Stroszek in Signs of Life, to the anarchistic colony of dwarfs in Even Dwarfs Started Small, to the power-mad Spanish conquistador in Aguirre, to the little ex-con in Stroszek …, are, in their hopeless, often insane revolt against circumstance, battling an absurd universe which seems directly connected to Camus' existential vision. Kaspar, a madman by bourgeois standards, maintains his freedom through passive noncompliance. Madness and revolution, despite the knowledge that failure is inevitable, become acts of liberation in Herzog's films, just as Sisyphus' damnation is his liberation. (pp. 226-27)

[Unlike] Camus' hero in The Stranger, knowledge of the absurdity of existence does not paralyze Kaspar emotionally. Kaspar, like the expressionist man still capable of direct feeling, "wears his heart on his chest."… Society has not yet socialized him to the point where he represses his emotional self. Without regard to who or what happens to be around him, Kaspar freely confesses his dreams and fears. Only the necessity of language to express himself seems to imprison him. Slowly, deliberately pronouncing every word for fear he may not make himself clear, Kaspar painfully articulates each of his utterances. This seriousness of purpose carries over into his concentrated, earnest attempts to understand those around him. Kaspar seems incapable of shielding himself with personal bias and thereby exudes an honesty lacking in others.

Kaspar's relationship to music, as well as the film's treatment of music as a whole, underlines his intense emotionality. When the blind Florian—like Kaspar, a societal cripple under Herr Daumer's patronage—plays piano, out of key and without rhythm, Kaspar remarks: "the music feels me strongly in my breast." (This use of the passive voice is typical for Kaspar's speech.) Later Kaspar learns to play the piano himself, and is asked to perform at a fashionable party given by a rich, effeminate nobleman, the Earl of Stanhope, under whose tutelage Kaspar is to continue his education. Kaspar plays Mozart like Florian, full of emotion, but technically unskilled to say nothing of incompetent. The party guests of course become uncomfortable and even impatient with such uncouth behavior, and their false and affected interest only makes their emotional sterility all the more obvious. These aristocrats, with their powdered noses and small-minded aesthetic of good taste, are incapable of appreciating the love Kaspar brings to his attempted music-making.

Mozart, in one damaged form or another, is heard throughout the film…. For those who listen carefully, it becomes apparent that Herzog picks up the aria [from The Magic Flute] at the end of the film, at the very point he fades out in the beginning…. Thus, the aria acts as a frame for the film, and functions as Herzog's declaration of love for his subject. This symmetry is reinforced at the exact midpoint of the film, where Herzog plays all seven and a half minutes of Albinoni's exquisite orchestral fragment "Adagio for Strings and Organ." We see Kaspar writing his autobiography, as he narrates the story of his destroyed watercress garden. The simple emotional beauty of the strings answers Kasper's hopeless wish, that creating music "be like breathing." Intuitively Kasper stumbles upon the ultimate goal of all musicians.

As mentioned above, a "young Mozart" also makes an appearance, and again the theme of music as emotion is picked up. The boy, a child prodigy who loved Mozart's music with a passion, now stares into a hole in the ground, "because the whiteness of the page blinded him." He is paralyzed by the difficulty of translating emotion into aesthetic form and so retreats into a mindless void. Ironically, Kaspar, having emerged from the nothingness of his hole, overcomes his paralysis and writes prodigiously in his diaries.

Kaspar's paralysis, as he stands immobile in the town square, or later in the exact same position in front of the magistrate's door, is, like that of the young Mozart's, the result of his utter passivity. Kaspar is taught to walk by his Caligari, who manipulates Kaspar's legs by kicking them, one in front of the other. Without language, without thought, his body is doomed to puppet-like manipulations. When a swordsman swings a blade in front of Kaspar's face, he does not even blink, because he has not yet learned to fear bodily harm. As the film progresses, and Kaspar is socialized through language, he also learns to control his body, and his movements appear more naturalistic. Yet there is still an unnatural slowness, a stiffness, a passiveness in Kaspar's movements recalling German Expressionist cinema. One thinks of Conrad Veidt's Caesare in Caligari, and Fritz Kortner's cowering postman in Backstairs. But while expressionist acting "uses stylization to create a stereotype" …, Herzog's actor, Bruno S., uses his body to underscore his otherness.

The secondary characters, on the other hand, are more stereotypical, and it has been argued that the roles of these players are nothing but a series of shallow caricatures: self-righteous priests, pedantic university professors, drunken peasants, callous noblemen, and petty bureaucrats. Never projecting more than a one-dimensional image, most of these characters are, to be sure, exceedingly unsympathetic. Even the farmer and his wife, or Herr Daumer and his elderly housekeeper, Kaspar's guardians and staunchest allies, are more typical than individual…. [Kaspar Hauser's characters] may exist only in so far as they contribute to defining the central character. Thus, Kaspar's imperfect piano playing is contrasted to Lord Stanhope's ever so refined narration of a trip to Greece. Dressed in a slimy green suit, he spews forth one tired, romantic cliché after another, as his guests politely oh and ah, and Kaspar turns ill from the parlor heat. Then there is the little town clerk, who records every detail of Kaspar's short life with anal accuracy. When the books on Kaspar have been closed after the autopsy, the clerk is absolutely certain the mystery has been solved through his diligence: "a beautiful protocol, an exact protocol." If town councilors are beasts as E.T.A. Hoffmann feared …, then Herzog's town clerk is a species of rodent. (pp. 228-30)

Using the diminuitive form,… Kaspar anthromorphizes with child-like tenderness almost everything around him, whether animate or inanimate. Kaspar's very first word is "Ross" (archaic German: "horse"), the name he gives a toy Trojan horse he rolls with endless fascination back and forth in his cell…. [Unlike] the Expressionists, Kaspar does not find these objects with a life of their own dangerous, but accepts them as quite normal. In Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small these demonic overtones are more obvious: "That is a world in which objects have become independent and monstrous. Not the dwarfs are the monsters, but a door handle or a chair, which has grown out of proportion." But for Kaspar objects are less threatening than human beings, and he has no sense "of doors that become gaping maws and shrieking gullets."… (pp. 230-31)

This sense of living in an animate, constantly fluctuating environment carries over into Kaspar's attitude towards dreams. At one point Kaspar says to his mentor, Herr Daumer, "Mich hat getraümt" (I was dreamt). Daumer congratulates Kaspar for finally differentiating between dream and reality, instead of relating dreams as facts. Yet Kaspar's use of the passive voice still indicates his continuing belief in dreams as a kind of reality. The passive voice implies that the dreams come to him externally and are thus no different from the perceptions made during waking hours. That he did not dream until he was born into the physical world also adds to Kaspar's confusion. At the same time, Kaspar dreams of places he's never been, e.g. the Caucasus village or Sahara desert. Kaspar's dream of the mountain of death, on the other hand, mirrors the exterior reality of his near fatal wounds….

But it is Kaspar's last dream of a caravan wandering in the Sahara, which may hold the key to Herzog's film. The caravan stops when the leaders see mountains in front of them, and fear their compasses have failed them. The blind Berber leading the caravan gets off his camel, tastes the sand, and proclaims the mountains to be a mirage. The caravan moves on and realizes the truth of the blind man's vision, but Kaspar never learns whether they reach the city they were looking for. Here reality, as observed by the camel drivers, is discovered to be a mirage, a dream, a joke played on them by the desert winds, while the perception of the blind Berber corresponds to the actual order of things. It seems clear that for Herzog empirical reality is only an illusion of another kind…. (p. 231)

But the problem is more complex, involving as it were a bias against rational, dualistic forms of thinking. For Herzog, neither scientific method, nor a theory of logic, nor objective rationalizations, can reveal any systematic order to the universe. The universe is unknowable, as Camus would have argued. Herzog's ending reinforces the anti-scientific bias: during an autopsy, the learned doctors discover Kaspar's brain to be oversized, and thus find, they believe, a pat solution for the anti-social behavior he has displayed. Again, Herzog's attack on science has its roots in Camusian existentialism. One need only remember Camus' approval in The Rebel of Bakunin's tirade against the tyranny of science. Interestingly, Camus' parable, "All Cretans are liars," in The Myth of Sisyphus is reworked by Herzog in Kaspar Hauser: a university professor of logic visits Kaspar to see if he is capable of rational, deductive thinking. To test Kaspar he gives him a problem of logic…. Kaspar's answer uses such simple logic, given the specific circumstances of the problem, that it annihilates any pretense to analytic thought. To find humanity at the very edge of madness, of physical and mental deformation, as Herzog does in all his work, is to assert the humanity in all men. Kaspar, like almost all of Herzog's subjects, looks at the world from a different perspective. And, like all of those who see through different eyes, Kaspar is doomed to be an outcast, whose presence in middle-class society invariably causes consternation.

Society, intolerant of otherness, of physical defects, and of uncontrollable psyches, denies these damaged individuals their humanity through bureaucratic institutionalization, persecution, and simple neglect. Yet Herzog's criticism of bourgeois values is basically apolitical. Like Camus—and in contrast Sartre—Herzog does not connect the attitudes of Kaspar's adversaries to class structure, although the clerics, clerks, and academics Kaspar comes into contact with are of the same class. The implication, that his otherness, like the class-bound otherness of the poor, is a financial burden to the bourgeoisie best ignored, is never followed through.

Rather, The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser is structured as a series of individual confrontations between Kaspar and the representatives of a normal, bourgeois culture: priests (religion), town clerks (government), professors (education), nobility (capital)…. Like a Christ figure, or St. Joan, Kaspar tacitly accepts his suffering by remaining passive in the face of maltreatment. The very passiveness of these martyrs, their refusal to actively conform to the norms society requires, however, becomes their revolt against those norms. Their uncompromising goodness, their lack of malice even towards their persecutors, on the other hand, becomes a visionary example for man's redemption. Just as the blind Berber brings salvation through his disability, so does Kaspar through his otherness force us to reconsider the values on which society is predicated.

Ironically, then, this godless passion play, in which every man is for himself, and the universe against all, leaves us, like the work of Albert Camus, with an anarchistic, albeit humanistic visions of man. Like the caravan trekking over the barren sands towards an unseen goal, life becomes an act of faith in Herzog's films. Heart of Glass in fact ends with a group of men rowing out into an unchartered ocean, not knowing whether they will fall off the edge. Man's only hope is that through creation—Kaspar writes an autobiography, Herzog makes his films—hope is maintained. Despite the chaos, despite the irrationality of existence, man must persevere. (pp. 231-33)

Jan-Christopher Horak, "Werner Herzog's Écran Absurde," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1979 Salisbury State College), Vol. VII, No. 3, Special Issue, 1979, pp. 223-34.

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